In this impressive GALA-commissioned musical, composer Mariano Vales saturates us with ardent Argentinian soul music which transitions from tango, to salsa and waltz in perfect synchronization
with playwright Gustavo Ott’s poetic text and lyrics, to take us on a journey to find the mystifying Eva Peron.
What’s important for Ott and Vales is not Eva’s romanticized rags to riches life, (which caught Andrew Lloyd Webber’s fancy enough to write Evita), but where her life ended and the way people even today everywhere are still captivated by her as an icon.
Who was the real Eva Peron? From an impoverished childhood, she rose to Argentine movie stardom, married General Juan Peron and become a world-famous superstar as First Lady when Peron became president. But fate was cruel, in that in 1951, when nominated for Vice-President, in direct line for the presidency, Eva’s failing health forced her to withdraw.
At first glance, stage flats painted with an expressionistic mural of men in assembly lines against conveyor belts, cogs and wheels, remind us of Eva Peron’s deep empathy for workers. But when Argentine director Mariano Caligaris and GALA pull out all the stops for this premiere (workshopped in Buenos Aires last February), something more experimental and fresh than any one-sided creed emerges.
The play starts in 1952 where Eva (Laura Conforte) dies from cancer at age 33, but continues as “The Spiritual Leader of the Nation.” After her death, her husband, General Peron (Antonio Soto), builds a mausoleum and enlists Dr. Pedro Ara (Martin Ruiz), “the art doctor,” to embalm her with fluids that will make her indestructible. “Eternity is what we say it is,” Peron says, ever the father of the nation. Two years later, the anti-Peronists and General Aramburu, (Martin Ruiz, who quick-changes for several roles) triumph and Peron is exiled to Spain.
Eva’s corpse is abandoned in the workers’ union central offices. The mummy is beaten, mutilated, even raped by a colonel, and hidden in a closet to prevent an increasingly restive and clamoring populace from reclaiming their saint. Eva won’t die. And the generals’ central dilemma becomes a macabre quest for finding the ultimate resting place for the mummy. .
Conforte renders a luminous portrayal as Eva. Resplendent in strapless white evening gown, (credit Martin Schnellinger, costume designer), this golden voiced actress shatters our sense of distance by breaking the fourth wall and singing “Cancer is life. Cancer is love….” Memory is all. And disturbing as these lyrics are, the message is more about the persistence of love and life. Stunning with her blond hair wrapped in Eva’s signature braided bun, Conforte is flooded with blood-red light, (light design by Ayun Fedorcha) and backed by a drop curtain, from which a multitude of shirts, symbols for the “descamisados,” the wretched “shirtless ones,” hang from a grid as if from a clothesline (imaginative and eclectic scenic design by Mariana Fernandez). Instead of the image of Eva as a hard-working labor advocate, who fought for and won women’s suffrage, Conforte evokes the beatific dignity of a saint, bordering on angelic innocence. Increasingly, Eva grows more ethereal as she aims her message about the people’s endurance for suffering and the under-class resistance to domination straight to our hearts. “I return in the children kidnapped and disappeared….” The lyrics, translated into clear English, bring together the descamisados with the desaparecidos (disappeared ones). Eva has transcended death and is the soul of Argentina, past and future.
Anything is possible in this theatrically thrilling, confrontational style of theater. Conforte is as limp as a rag doll as soldiers drag Eva’s corpse around the stage. Then in one spine-tingling moment, she steps out of a death-still pose from an upright center-stage casket, as if time stands still, to sing: “Soul deep pain freezes time. Silence weeps, weeps, weeps,” just one of many pulse-stoppers. In this instance, lyrics, atonal accompaniment and a percussive ticking sound come together.
As General Juan Peron, Antonio Soto’s statuesque stage presence makes for an appealing foil to Conforte. In a tricky role, Soto captures Juan Peron’s paternalistic charm and passion for power that contrasts with Eva’s altruistic love for people. This baritone, whose operatic experience ranges from Mozart to Verdi and Puccini, manages to sustain sympathy for Peron, despite his crass use of Eva’s legend for his short-lived restoration in 1973 as an Argentine president with his third wife, Isabel, as vice-president. “Will they love me as they did you?” he sings ironically to Eva as he fades into shadows.
Isabel Peron, the General’s third wife, (Belen Oyola-Rebaza), comes across as a puppet-like woman, who will enlist supernatural power, even voodoo, intrigue and murder, if necessary, to become the host body for an Eva reincarnation. She dresses and speaks like Eva. But once Juan Peron dies in 1974, Isabel’s strings are manipulated by Lopez Rega, the spiritualist, (a wily Diego Mariani), who starts the human rights abuses that help Isabel become the first woman president of Argentina. The depiction is fascinating. Instead of the stern faced photos, Isabel is almost doll-like, like a charming monkey hooked on a tether to an organ-grinder.
Choreographer Carina Losano elicits some fast-step precision from the four-male dancers: dance captain, Sebastian Vitale, John Hager Flores, Gerald Montoya, and Michael Vitaly Sazonov. The range varies from the ensemble’s breakout into tap dancing, to a dreamy tango between Eva and Juan Peron. Among the musical instruments, the Bandoneon, a pulled-out, accordion-like, instrument tuned with two reeds, an octave apart, as played by Emmanuel Trifilio from Argentina, produces a velvety sound for the melancholic tango accompaniment.
Once again GALA makes a priceless contribution to Washington theatre with this splendorous world premiere musical. Don’t miss it. Let the rafters of the Tivoli shake, rattle and ring with the vocal blend of an impassioned international cast.
In Spanish with English surtitles.
Mummy in the Closet: The Return of Eva Peron
book written by Gustavo Ott . music composed by Mariano Vales
lyrics by Mariano Vales and Gustavo Ott . with English translation by Heather McKay
directed by Mariano Caligaris
produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre
reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.