Despite draconian financial cuts in arts funding in 2011, the Hispanic theatres have had the most terrific of all possible seasons ever!
Aside from the fact that I am proud of my own personal Spanish/Mexican heritage, why do I love the Spanish language theatre so much that I believe Washington D.C. productions are unique and worthy of awards?
Recently, I was reading an article “Hispanic Theatre in New York,” by Gloria F. Waldman, from Wiley Online Library, that helped me satisfy my curiosity. Waldman observes that what sets the growing Latin theatre scene apart in New York, “….is their passionate dedication to theatre as an expression of national and universal identity.” The tradition is so deeply rooted, Waldman continues, that in Latin America, theatrical enactments go back to Indian ceremonies, like those practiced by the Taino Indians in the Caribbean. (In Anna in the Tropics, playwright Nilo Cruz actually uses one of the rituals. But more about that later.)
“Passionate dedication to theatre….” that provides identity sets Hispanic Theatre apart. Wow. I believe the same statement holds true here in Washington D.C. Looking back on 2011 to 2012 Hispanic Theatre Season during the Audience Choice Awards has helped me answer some of my own questions. Hopefully, they will help the Spanish and English-speakers better appreciate and make choices for the season’s audience choice awards.
If you think the Hispanic community is homogeneous, or the essence of uniformity, think again. It’s a bottomless, rich goldmine of diversity. Every time you cross a border or mountain range, you can encounter a different culture. The variety is so diverse, it’s terrifying and exciting. It’s a million little pieces. Many myths emerge from a diverse population. So I’ve decided, the individual story is the thing. Examples of plays produced by the GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, as well as other foreign language theater companies, such as Teatro de la Luna or Carla Hubner’s miraculous, small-scale, pocket-opera In Series, back up this assertion. So I’ve picked plays that tell a good story. I love to go to the theater to see the stories told with passionate commitment that bring out the rich diversity.
I submit my favorite theatrical productions written in Spanish with English translation, from the 2011-2012 season, and tell you why they are important.
One of the biggest misunderstandings about Hispanic Theatre is that these stories are quaint museum pieces that have no relevance today. No way.
1. A well-orchestrated collaboration between the GALA and Accion Sur from Madrid, Spain, ¡Ay Carmela!, by Jose Sanchis Sinisterra, takes place in the late 1930′s, near the end of the Spanish Civil War. Yet this unforgettable two-hander play, that also exists as a 1990 movie, tops my list as a great story. Directed by Jose Luis Arellano Garcia, who directed Lope de Vega’s El Caballero de Olmedo last season, ¡Ay, Carmela! delivers a powerful anti-war message that could be a warning about our own political future. It serves as a warning against excessive zeal.
Husband and wife, Paulino and Carmela, two touring troubadours have wandered into enemy Fascist territory. In an attempt to save their lives, they stage a show spouting Franco’s propaganda and satirizing democratic ideals. Carmela, who cannot keep up the masquerade, wraps herself in the Republican flag, makes a last act defiant gesture and dies a martyr.
So what?, you may say. Look at the Syrians dying every day. There is a fine line between a theatrical world and the real world. Propaganda can be pumped up in political campaigns. And ¡Ay, Carmela! is a painful reminder about the need for deep allegiance to ideals that make life worth living. It also shows us how lies can be propagated to destroy reality. And that’s why this modern Spanish classic is important to recognize and preserve. It’s dangerous to forget the past that easily can be repeated. Do we keep making the same mistakes?
The scaled-back production values by a resident team created a haunting atmosphere of magical realism on a simple set. GALA’s scenic designer Giorgos Tsappas used what was there– the back red brick wall, and a gold drop curtain. The play within a play starts with Carmela dead. Skillfully handled, the effect is deeply moving. Near the end of Act I when Carmela realizes she cannot taste her favorite fruit, actress Mona Martinez drops her head and becomes an embodiment of despair. So this is what it feels like to be dead, I thought. The back story is acted out with Paulino, the equally superb Diego Mariani, who makes sympathetic the spineless conformer, Paulino, who ends up with no artistic integrity, is spiritually dead in life.
Through flashback, the playwright sets the record straight as to what really happened. Music for the two-step, pasodoble routine used in the bullfight reveal what Carmela is doing in her flamenco dancing before an audience of condemned Freedom Fighters and Franco’s troops. Every gesture, twist of her torso and twitch in Martinez’ expressive face are silent statements of protest. Carmela becomes a fist in the face of repression. A time bomb ready to explode. And when Carmela’s defenses shatter, strobe lights splinter the image of her body in a great theatrical moment. In the ensuing struggle, Carmela becomes the catchy song that unifies the Freedom Fighters, the Republicans, against the Fascists. Carmela is dead; but her defiant instinct for free expression and artistic integrity lives on.
The way the GALA collaboration succeeded makes this presentation worthy of top acting and best play awards. If not, then maybe a new category just for Hispanic Theatre needs to be set up?
2. Anna In The Tropics-Ana en tropicoby Nilo Cruz. The 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning play, originally written and produced in English by the bilingual American/Cuban playwright, follows the story of a lector, a traditional story teller, hired by Cuban-American immigrants in a 1929 Tampa, Florida, cigar factory to educate them while they roll cigars. As the lector Juan Julian reads Tolstoi’s “Anna Karenina,” the power of language transforms the lives of the workers.
What made this GALA production a standout? It was performed in Spanish with English sur-titles whereas the Pulitzer Prize was awarded for the one in English. Cruz’ imagistic language in Spanish soared. The actors seemed to experience an organic communion that exalted their performances and created a heightened reality. The play works well in both languages. But I loved it in Spanish.
Here’s one important reason why: Nilo Cruz creates a mythical realism that adds historical depth to his play by resurrecting an ancient Hispanic theatrical tradition. In Act II, there’s an element of mystique about the aroma from cigar smoke that drifts into the auditorium from the stage in the inauguration party scene for the new cigar brand, the “Anna Karenina.” The workers, held spellbound by the lector’s readings, have collaborated and created an eponymous new cigar, named for the novel. But does the new cigar pass a product quality test?
The factory workers gather around the lector, Juan Julian (Oscar Ceville) in a seated circle. Reading aloud in cigar factories descends from a Taino Indian custom, Julian tells them, dating back to the time the Indians believed “….the tobacco leaves whisper the language of the sky..,” and that the chiefs communicated with the gods through the smoke rings. So the cigar factory owner, Santiago (Hugo Medrano), lights up and passes a cigar around for the test and the fourth wall to the stage is broken. We in the audience are drawn into a sensory communion with the actors on stage. We also inhale the wafting odors of that cigar smoke that smell so good. (I thought of an uncle from childhood.) And although cigar smoking may not be good for your lungs, the philosophical idea is so beautiful. A unique sense of community is created. Here, Cruz, the playwright, and Jose Carrasquillo, the director, allowed the connection to occur between audience and actors through an ancient ritual. A true moment of theater magic.
3. Puerto Rico……¡Fua! A blockbuster, tour-de-force musical that capped the season brought out a lot of young Puerto Ricans and exceeded financial expectations, according to GALA’s Associate Producing Director, Abel Lopez. (More about that point later.)
A maniacal, joyous way to swallow a chunk of painful history, and renew a sense of identity. A hit that broke all box office records, after the painful cancellation of Matthew Paul Olmos’ dark comedy, I Put the Fear of Mexico In ‘Em. The musical, Puerto Rico…..¡Fua! is protest literature; but it’s not a rant. It’s a riot of laughter. Every moment was fascinating and fun for me because my husband, who was born in Puerto Rico, didn’t know this history and neither did I.
It’s a celebration to tell Uncle Sam to go to Hell. No, It’s a love affair with Uncle Sam and freedom. (The freedom to be able to tell a superpower to go to hell.) I loved every minute of it. If you don’t recognize yourself as part of New York City street gang warfare, one of the Sharks or the Jets in Bernstein’s West Side Story, then Puerto Rico….¡Fua! answers a more universal cry for recognition as a “Boricua,” or Puerto Rican.
Playwright Carlos Ferrari gives us four stages of Puerto Rican history in 32 vaudeville style skits. The history evolves from the Taino Indian era, through the Spanish conquest, and the American confrontation during the Spanish-American War, to assimilation with American culture. The entire show was a romp; a thrill to behold.
Production values, timing of entrances and exits, everything worked. Luciana Stecconi’s circus ring design set was perfect for the non-stop mania, madcap action on stage. A pocket-draw-curtain stage was up against a larger, faded red-white-and-blue stars and stripes proscenium stage, symbolic of Puerto Rico’s subordinate status to the U.S.A. Brilliant. The dancing and full-cast numbers were jointly choreographed by actor/dancers Jose Manuel Ozuna-Baez and Antonio Vargas to the well-modulated music from the Sin Miedo combo.
This is the kind of fusion of myth and hardcore facts that the GALA does so well. It makes you laugh hard and wises you up on what’s real. We’ve experienced it before in the 2007 hit musical: The Latido Negro: Peru’s African Beat, and in 2011 with Canto Al Peru Negro (Song for Black Peru). (Who knew Peru had slaves who resisted and created the cajon drum by pounding on ship cargo boxes?)
4. Back to my choices for Audience Choice Awards: The echo of a torrential outpouring of creativity from Latin America was heard from across the Potomac. Teatro de la Luna in its 21st season hosted, not just one, but two festivals in the Gunston Theatre Arts Center, Theatre II, in Arlington Virginia, funded in part by the Arlington Commission for Arts. Both festivals were superb eye-openers to other worlds, diverse cultures.
The 14th ( XIV) International Festival of Hispanic Theater, from Oct. 11 to Nov. 19, 2011, Teatro de la Luna hosted six Latin American countries: Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the U.S.A. All the entries this season were gratifying and well worth experiencing in totality to appreciate the diverse community.
Here are the standouts:
- Those Who Taste It; Know It, Quien lo probo, lo sabe, representing Argentina, written and directed by Mariano Moro, and enacted by Mariano Mazzei, was perfect for a black box stage.
Mazzei, the actor from Argentina who has toured Latin America, convinced us he was the great Golden Age of Spanish Theatre genius by taking us on a joy-filled journey. Did Lope’s life follow his made-up plots or did his plays record life as he lived it? Did art follow life? Or life follow art? Lope lived a precarious financial life with two wives, 16 children and umpteen many mistresses so he had to make money and wrote for survival. He lived a scandalous life, that could be equated with the life of a Hollywood star today. Although Lope de Vega, as Mazzei portrays him, solidified the “cape-and dagger” plays into a model others imitated, Lope trumped his competitors for fame and artistry by outliving and out-writing them all. Mazzei’s elastic-bodied physicality captured more than Lope’s image-rich text the actor shared with the audience. We could imagine 17th century Madrid street life, as rich in detail as if we were living in a Velasquez painting. And that’s the point. A simple set and a performer worthy of awards galore.
- Luisa Fernanda, by Federico Moreno-Torroba, music and libretto by Guillermo Fernandez Shaw and Federico Romero. Representing the U.S.A., a 90-minute adaptation by tenor Jose Sacin, of this 20th century zarzuela, known for its difficult passages and popularized in the U.S. by Placido Domingo. Sacin, who serves as musical director, also performed the role of the peasant farmer, Vidal Hernando, alternating with Alex Alburqueque. This is a reprise of the 2008 Zarzuela Di Si production, much improved with cleaner stage direction by Mario Marcel. It was beautifully delivered by a cast of budding, young opera hopefuls. This Spanish language musical about common people fiercely fighting for themselves as individuals, rather than for a noble cause, is distinctly Spanish because of its passionate, ornate vocabulary embedded in the arias and text. Lovely, beautiful ensemble work.
- Medea Calls Collect/Medea Llama Por Cobrar, by Peky Andino, was a tour-de-force eye-opener by Maria Beatriz Vergara, from Ecuador, who impersonated a vast range of characters and personalities. The theme of displacement and alienation among immigrants is confronted. I liked the way this piece brought into the spotlight obscure, mysterious and wonderful Incan references. Example: Sound bites of Yaravi guitar music, the “saddest music in the world,” is the song of the Incas departure because of colonial domination. Plus, the Cangahua Festival dates back to the Incan summer solstice celebrations.
Along with the disappearing Indian rituals, Medea, who is blind, gets lost in the crowd in New York City. Depicted as a relatively unimportant illegal alien who is looking for a landing strip, for a home, the former Greek monster mother is in a technological society that trivializes her importance. Although child abuse and infanticide is still a disturbing, uncomfortable subject, this piece had unexpected, beautifully lyric moments, enhanced by an impressive use of lighting. Ms. Vergara’s stunning work could not be ignored.
- Coraje II/Courage II, written and interpreted by Teresa Hernandez from Puerto Rico, offered another take on how theatre can be political commentary. Based on the German playwright/poet Bertolt Brecht’s epic Mother Courage, and the theatre of alienation, this piece touched on real world journalism. This one-woman show confronted head-on the escalating problems of illegal South American drug trafficking in Puerto Rico. Hernandez dragged an empty wheelchair with amputated legs across stage and told us we’re in an age when an army is safer than life on urban streets. Hernandez contrasted the death of her son in a street turf battle through quick scene cuts, like film without the use of a camera. The ultimate prick to our consciences, however, came at the end. No room remained at the local cemetery to bury her son because of the military burials. An indirect stab at the commonwealth status of Puerto Rican islanders who can die in the U.S. military but cannot vote for a U.S. president.
- Latinas, (Four Latin American Women, living as foreigners), by Denise Duncan, from Teatro Raiz, from Costa Rica, a wildly experimental, fun-filled satiric piece, that vents on the frustrations of immigration. The younger generation coming up are not going to put up with the classification of being different. Nor are they going to endure bureaucratic delays. They want acceptance now. Women’s Lib has gone south to Latin America.
- Relatos Borrachose/Tales Told Under the Influence, by Enrique Salas, from Venezuela. Directed by television actress, Elba Escobar, three actors adopt allegorical character roles and deliver a morality play about the madness of overindulgence of alcoholic beverages. Allegorical characters, like Everyman, allow us all to identify to some extent. One of the soliloquies reminded me of Charlie Chaplin’s film short, One A.M.
5. Then from mid-February through March, an exciting new mini-festival, El Abrazo Lunar (The Moon’s Embrace) another superb Hispanic Theatre festival that imported diverse cultures in works from Costa Rica, Spain, Argentina and Uruguay. We tasted the exports of different and idiomatic gigs. These theatre companies performed in Spanish (with either English sur-titles or headset simultaneous translation) but with vastly different dialects. All entries were unusual and excellent, some more daring in experimentation.
- The Immigrant, El Inmigrante from Costa Rica (Nicaragua), written and performed by Cesar Melendez. For sheer raw acting power and guts to say what needs to be said about immigration, Cesar Melendez gets it right. Border crossings, under-reported events, are also a problem for Latin American countries, not just the U.S. Melendez’ command performance (performed in Teatro de la Luna International Festivals in 2005 and 2006) grapples with the indifference to human suffering, the humiliations that come from being “different.” How blind faith in turning the other cheek doesn’t work. The inclusion of quotes from the relatively unknown Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario, introduces a Spanish idiom, custom-made in Costa Rica: “Pura Vida,” “pure life.” No matter how much or little you have; life is short, so eat dessert first. Enjoy life. Immigration is a hot political issue in this country. But rarely do we realize that it’s also problematic for other countries as well. This one-act offers fresh insights into the resentments and prejudices between Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans, two Meso-American countries.
- Family Under Construction/Familia en Construccion, by Gonzala Martin Sherman, from Spain. with its emphasis on family values. A lovely improvised theater piece with actors who complete sentences for each other.
- I Can’t Live Without a Maid/No Puedo Vivir Sin Mucama, written and performed by Perla Laske, from Argentina. A one-woman cabaret, multi-character show, by one versatile, chameleon-like actress.
- Then cabaret performer, Petru Valenski, wrapped up the Moon’s Embrace Festival for Teatro de la Luna with Petru: By Himself/Solo Petru, by Omar Varela, from Uruguay. Valenski revitalized and needled us with the rioplatense satire of madcap comedy with inspiration from audience participation. Valenski, a charismatic unifier of diversity is a master of improv, who can draw Latino cultures together by asking people about their backgrounds and integrating everyone on stage. Bravo!
6. I Want Them Both, Las Quiero a las dos, by Ricardo Talisnik, the Neil Simon of Argentina, the Teatro de la Luna’s show that ended their 21st season. An intellectually challenging farce, with Teatro de la Luna’s versatile Peter Pereyra, as a leading man, about a love triangle, where wife, mistress and husband meet in one room and agree to try alternative lifestyles to fill everyone’s needs. A completely 21st century way of making everyone miserable. So there’s a very satisfying twist and moral in the wrap-up. A fresh way of looking at how a Latina wife can get back at a philandering Don Juan spouse.
7. From the In Series Pocket Opera Company, De Mi Corazon Latino/From My Latin Heart, introduced a Mexican tenor, Jesus Daniel Hernandez, with a thrilling voice, who has left the U.S. Army to become a protege of Placido Domingo. A name to watch for, Hernandez delivered a bravura, heart-warming tour-de-force one-tenor concert of those Latin songs closest to his heart, sponsored by Carla Hubner’s In Series at the Source Theatre in D.C. A prodigious talent, Hernandez was joined by Monalisa Arias, from the GALA company, as guitar accompanist. .
8. Barber & Barberillo. Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge, juxtaposed with and the zarzuela, El Barberillo, The Little Barber of Lavapies, Francisco A. Barbieri & Luis Mariano de Larra. The In Series Pocket Opera Company presented a delightful operatic double-bill, integrated by having performers from A Hand of Bridge join the audience, making comments to help transition the two shows. Delightful.
9. Love Potion, #1, based on Donizetti’s Italian comic opera, L’Elisir D’Amore, the In Series at the GALA Tivoli Theatre. Nick Olcott’s clever Americanized adaptation mingling Spanish, Spanglish, Italian and 1950′s slang English dialogue and translations. A bi-lingual accessible send-up in operatic style. Wonderful chance for young, aspiring opera singers.
Favorite performances from the ACTRESSES:
1. Mona Martinez’ electrifying performance in red velvet tattered curtain as Carmela in ¡Ay, Carmela! at GALA Hispanic Theatre. A flamenco dancer by training who as an actress can convey craving for a return to life. You anguish with her.
2. Monalisa Arias as Marela in Anna In the Tropics, Ana en el tropico, at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Notable young actress, who doubled as accompanist on guitar for Jesus Daniel Hernandez’ performance at In Series’ …..de mi Corozon Latino/From My Latin Heart.
3. Anamer Castrello in multiple roles in Puerto Rico…¡Fua!, and as Paloma, in El Barberillo/Little Barber of Lavapies, along with:
4. Randa Rouweyha in multiple roles in the In Series’ Barber & Barberillo.
5. Laura Virella in the title role of Luisa Fernanda, by Federico Moreno Torroba, Romero and Shaw, Teatro de la Luna’s 14th International Theatre Festival.
6. Maria Beatriz Vergara, from Ecuador, as Medea, in Medea Calls Collect/Medea Llama Por Cobrar, in Teatro de la Luna’s 14th International Hispanic Theatre Festival.
7. & 8. Karen Morales-Chacana, as Isabel; and Yovinca Arredondo Justiniano, as Julia, in Las Quiero a las Dos, by Ricardo Talesnik, Teatro de la Luna.
9. Perla Laske in No Puedo Vivir Sin Mi Mucama (I Cannot Live Without My Maid), from Argentina, in Teatro de la Luna’s mini-Hispanic Theatre Festival, El Abrazo Lunar/The Moon’s Embrace.
Favorite performances from the ACTORS:
1. Joel Perez power-house performer in Puerto Rico….¡Fua! multiple roles, memorable as Uncle Sam, a show-stopper as the Professor. All the male actors in this show were stand-outs: Ricardo Puente; Jose Manuel Ozuna-Baez, multiple roles, dancer; Jeffrey Hernandez as a self-righteous conquistador;
2. Antonio Vargas in multiple roles and as a choreographer in Puerto Rico….¡Fua!
3. Diego Mariani as Paulino in ¡Ay, Carmela! His understated, nuanced portrayal of the schizophrenic Spanish conformer, Paulino. who salutes Franco and lives with a lie that deadens his soul. A soulful partner for actress Mona Martinez, mentioned first and foremost on my deserving of award list. Stay tuned.
4. Mariano Mazzei-in Quien lo probo; lo sabe (Those Who Taste It; Know) Teatro de la Luna International Hispanic Theatre Festival. Argentinian actor who is Italian yet captured with accuracy the 17th century dialect from Renaissance Spain. A dazzling performance.
5. Jesus Daniel Hernandez, In Series De Mi Corazon Latino at the Source Theatre in Washington D.C.
6. Jose Sacin as the peasant farmer, Vidal, ln Luisa Fernanda, in Teatro de la Luna’s International Festival of Hispanic Theatre.
7. Cesar Melendez, author/actor of El Inmigrante. For raw energy, quiet passion in a command performance from 2006.
8. Petru Valenski, in his one-man rioplatense show, with cross-dressing, Solo Petru, Petru By Himself.
9. Alex Alburqueque, as Vidal in Luisa Fernanda, with Teatro de la Luna, and, Belcore, the juvenile delinquent, in Love Potion #1, In Series, at the Tivoli Theatre, in D.C.
10. Peter Pereyra- as Miguel in Las Quiero a las Dos, by Ricardo Talesnik, Teatro de la Luna.
Financial news and an important announcement
Backstage, from the business side at the GALA Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli Square, Associate Producing Director of the GALA Theatre, Abel Lopez, agrees that the 2011-2012 season has been inspiring. “We exceeded our goals at the box office,” he says. And that is saying something because at the season’s start, this vibrant theatre company faced about a 20% budget shortfall because of cut-backs in National Capital Arts & Cultural Affairs grants.
And Rebecca Read Medrano, executive artistic director of the GALA Hispanic Theatre will be the first to confirm how it hurt. One show in their traditional policy of staging four plays on their main stage plays had to be cancelled to keep the ship from sinking. With pluck and determination, this valiant band of troopers carried on. Their lighting board still lit up. The plaster in the gorgeous refurbished Tivoli Theatre ceiling remained up. And so did the spirits of the GALA company.
Quick turnarounds that would appeal to different segments of the Latino audience filled the vacant space at the Tivoli Theatre. In March, Five Hours With Mario/Cinco horas con Mario, based on a novel by Miguel Delibes, was a beautifully phrased, passionate monologue, a widow’s lament over her husband’s coffin, by Spanish actress, Maria Victoria Pena. In April, Puro Tango delivered a one-night cabaret gig, starring Nelson Pino, after appearing in the 2008 GALA mainstage show, Agustin Lara– Boleros & Blues in 2008. That gig was followed by a second tango show: Quin Tango, Flamenco Dancing in Cabaret style, on April 25. Night of the Stars/Noche De Estrellas, featured Nelson Pino, a renowned Uruguayan tango singer, seen in . Occupy GALA, directed by Quique Aviles, enlivened Columbia Heights and the Tivoli Theatre with Hip Hop, rock bands, street performers, and African drumming. Plus the bilingual production for the next generation of theater-goers, the children’s show. Don Quijote Y Sancho Panza, based on the Cervantes novel, featuring Jose Carrasquillo as the Don, was such a hit, it will be repeated as part of the repertoire this next season. Then the ArteAmerica program featured Fuego Flamenco VII, Ana Gonzales and Jose Barrios & Company (in Nov. 2011) and the the incomparable The Men of Flamenco, with Edwin Aparicio (in Dec. 2011). The GALA made money on these events.
Yet the fact remains. The GALA had to cut one show: I Put the Fear of Mexico in ‘em, by Matthew Paul Olmos. I felt very sad about this because I reviewed a one-act preview of it at the 2008 Page to Stage Festival at the Kennedy Center. The piece digs into some edgy stuff about crossing borders, both territorial and sexual; and it’s about our irrational fears of confrontation with foreigners from different cultures, how stereotyping and race prejudice affects our lives. For now, it’s still on a back burner at the GALA Theatre.
Now comes rewarding, breaking news: Last week, the GALA was awarded a substantial Kresge grant ($125,000) which will help their upcoming 2012-2013 season and stand as a model of economy and hope for other Washington D.C. foreign language theatre companies. Onward and upward.