Top Pick — On a set littered with sandbags, rifles stand in wooden gun racks. Strains of catchy guitar music filter through muffled explosions of mortars. In the middle of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Federico Garcia Lorca is dead but we’re about to see his playful side in a puppet show that is bawdy, grotesque, and exquisitely beautiful.
Argentine director Adhemar Bianchi and his puppeteer daughter Ximena ease us into 1930s Spain through a frame story that promises a darker realism, based on real letters written by members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Lights come up on a volunteer soldier, Rose, (Tricia Homer) who brings us into her world through a letter she is writing home in English about how hard it is to explain Jim Crow laws, racism and lynch mobs in America to warmly affectionate, wholesome school-age kids. The spotlight then cuts to a male volunteer soldier (Mattias Kraemer), who leans on a sand bag, and writes his letter home. He is enjoying a peaceful moment with his guitar, away from the Lincoln Brigade front against Franco’s fascists, who are aided by Hitler and Mussolini. (Pre-show documentaries, with English translation, run continuously on TV monitors in the lobby and are helpful.)
After an aisle entrance of more freedom fighters, singing in Spanish and interacting with audience members, the introduction ends with a rousing cry of “Long Live Lorca,” sung in English. Lorca’s spirit like a ghost is still alive. And the integration of authentic freedom-fighter rebel songs, that invite hand-clapping participation, heightens the soul-stirring warm-up and feels organic for El retablillo de Don Cristobal/The Farce of Don Cristobal and the Maiden Rosita. According to the directors’ program notes, Lorca’s puppet play that celebrates the defiance against dictatorial authority with knock-down-pratfall puppetry actually was performed on the battlefield to build troop morale against Franco’s forces. And what greater relief could there be than puppets in scenes of ribald joking and wild sex.
What’s impressive though is how a dynamic GALA ensemble succeeds in building a simple puppet show into a Guignolesque farce, exaggerated to the nth degree. What makes this show worth seeing are the team of passionately committed actors, who perform with all stops out and succeed in breaking down the fourth wall for Lorca’s deceptively simple puppet play.
A big wagon is wheeled on stage to the beating of a loud drum. Poeta, a child-sized, stand-up puppet with shiny, soulful, black eyes and a beard, is manipulated by the incomparable and expressive-voiced Mel Rocher, who is black-hooded so we don’t see the actor’s face. But Rocher’s voice as Poeta hushes the audience. Poeta asks that we be “profoundly still…,” as we are about to hear the deep truth about the marriage between Cristobal and Rosita. But Poeta-Puppet, whose feet are attached to Rocher’s feet so that actor and puppet move together, gets too carried away with what sounds like free expression of Lorca’s lyrical genius: “I want to tell you that I know how roses are born and how the stars grew out of the sea,….” Enter the Director, (Oscar Ceville), who reminds Poeta it’s time to move on; the Prologue is over. Then one delightful stage moment follows another.
The cure will kill you. And a rotund and gray-wigged Cristobal, played big with operatic gestures by Angel Torres, enacts the message with robust zeal. Decked out in bright red costume and lace (costumes by Claudia Tomsig and Alessandra D’Ovidio), Cristobal carries a gargantuan billy club and quickly establishes himself as an evil, old lecher, also a doctor, filled with greed, who does more damage than good to the Patient (Carlos del Valle). The Patient runs in a frenzy to escape Cristobal’s method of bleeding and beating him to death to cure him. The Doctor/Patient relationship, like the slap-‘em-silly teamwork between Laurel and Hardy in 1930s films grows into absurdly cruel, nonsensical blows and beatings. Then the actors exit offstage. And hand puppets of Cristobol and the Patient pick up and continue the comic hitting match in a superhuman chase on the wagon platform stage. A sight-gag is the punch line that I won’t spoil.
But in case we forget we’re on a battlefield, Mother wants to join soldiers singing at the Republican front. That is, until Cristobal reminds everyone to get back on track with the wed-and-bed marriage deal. Cristobal and the Mother (Alicia Tessari Neiman), make a contract for her nubile daughter, Rosita, played by Belen Oyola-Rebaza, who gives a vibrant and fiercely feisty performance from the moment she enters and brazenly flirts with men in the audience. (Oyola-Rebaza was also memorable in Momia en el Closet: The Return of Eva Peron at GALA.)
Mother, played with solid command by Neiman, is so outrageously greedy she wants to sell her daughter, like merchandise, for gold or silver; not just once, but twice to double her profits. But although lamenting that an arranged marriage is really an execution, Rosita, who already has five lovers and wants twenty more to satisfy her huge sexual appetite, longs to get married—but not to Cristobal.
After Rosita’s marriage is finalized, it should be no surprise that an outrageously funny cuckolding-of-Cristobal sequence follows. Currito, played by actor Sebastian R. Delta, sneaks a peek under the puppet Rosita’s dress; then climbs into her house through the puppet-stage window and disappears. Later Currito reappears as a hand puppet, trembling in a wardrobe to escape Cristobal. Ultimately, the old bridegroom, Cristobal, douses his jealous suspicions in a drunken scene; then falls snoring into a profound sleep. Ah, freedom at last. Hand puppets Cocoliche and Rosita are free to make passionate love by flopping all over each other.
The rest of the play traces the sexual encounters between Cristobal, Rosita, and a series of other lovers until Rosita becomes pregnant and gives birth to five babies. Earthy and basic, the play is an exuberant celebration of life. El retablillo de Don Cristobal is Lorca’s attempt to recreate Andalucian folk puppet theater, that is lusty and primitive in its defiance, a tradition that dates back to the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre.
Bravo to Rocher as Poeta, Torres as Cristobal; Neiman as Mother; Oyola-Rebaza as Rosita, and the rest of the production team, for their precision timing throughout the entire production. The story unfolds seamlessly by passing the story line from live actor, to hand puppets/and or stand-up puppets on the wagon platform; and back to live actors again. The puppets become as real as the actors.
About those fascinating puppets, designed and crafted by Ximena Bianchi, they are a unique blend of British Punch and Judy hand puppets, table puppets and rod puppets, about three feet high. In Retablillo de Don Cristobal the little reproductions of human beings make the scandalous, rebellious behavior appear more playful and innocent. The ending pitch from the actors urging us to keep fighting for equal rights, justice, and artistic freedom, as Lorca did, sent me upbeat out of the theater.
The sub-titles translating Spanish into English are placed at accessible, easier-to-read eye-level at the sides of stage.
The Farce of Don Cristobal and the Maiden Rosita (El retablillo de Don Cristobal)
By Federico Garcia Lorca
Directed by Adhemar Bianchi and Ximena Bianchi
Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
The Farce of Don Cristobal closes May 2, 2010.
EL RETABLILLO DE DON CRISTOBAL (The Farce of Don Cristobal…)