We’ve all been through hellish family reunions so we can relate to Dino Armas’ character-driven, black comedy about two sisters, one a mother, and her disabled daughter. In Teatro de la Luna’s 2004 International Festival of Hispanic Theatre, the Uraguayan Heartstrings won enough praise to inspire artistic director Mario Marcel to revive it in 2010.
Playwright Dino Armas, a prolific writer of over 30 plays in Spanish, has won many awards, including the Florencio, the equivalent to Broadway’s Tony Award. Marcel, who directs, adds his own all-embracing flair to this beautiful play by reinforcing the Teatro de la Luna company’s clear-intentioned, good solid acting, with familiar Spanish ballads—known as boleros in Uruguay – sung cabaret-style by baritone Alex Alburqueque, in a spotlight. The overall impact is hypnotic entertainment and well worth experiencing.
The opening bolero, “Noche de Ronda”/”Be Mine Tonight,” by Maria Teresa Lara, introduces a rather somber mood, as if the play’s themes of loneliness, loss and the death of love are going to dominate. Yet in the opening scene, Marta (Nucky Walder) and Silvana (Marycarmen Wila) make small talk, so lighthearted and absurd, it’s funny, as they face physical, possibly permanent separation after living emotionally separated all their lives.
Having survived dysfunctional relationships with husbands and lovers, both women are brought together at Marta’s dining room table, set with fine china, in a home of fading Old World elegance, suggested by the lace tablecloth and upstage buffet, to reminisce over tea. Marta is the sister with the detailed memory of the mom and pop stories from the past that still hold the family-focused sisters together. As a reminder of her strong presence, a photograph of the family matriarch is spotlighted on a pedestal sidetable. Meanwhile Marta’s daughter Alicia (Yovinca Arredondo Justiniano) is seated in a wheelchair, her back to the audience.
Can life experiences keep the sisters together, at least in spirit? From the competitive, acerbic dialogue between them, we learn that Silvana, whose wealthy husband is now deceased, is waiting to be taxied to the airport for New York to live with her son, Ruben, who left Uruguay years ago and asks in his letters only about Alicia. But Silvana is leaving Marta and Alicia behind.
Something tragic and odd has happened in this household. In her passage from age 15 to sweet 16, Alicia mysteriously awakened, unable to speak or move after an unwanted pregnancy. Now a grown woman, Alicia is so helpless she requires diaper changes and wheelchair confinement. Nevertheless, when Alicia speaks, her mother and aunt cannot hear her. Only we in the audience hear because Alicia lives in another dimension—that of her thoughts. The dramatic technique contributes an edgy, even breathless suspense in a cresting wave of revelations.
What happened to Alicia? Yovinca Arredondo Justiniano, an acclaimed actress from Bolivia, delivers Alicia’s mad soliloquies with a heart-wrenching poignancy as the character describes her secret, forbidden and fully-realized passion with her cousin. Costumed in a body-tight leotard, Justiniano pantomimes Alicia’s sensuous love-making from behind a stage scrim, as she relives how Ruben was “…the first and the only and the last love” of her life. At this point, the use of “Only One Time” (“Solamente Una Vez”), the famous ballad by Agustin Lara, performed and sung by Alburqueque, fits perfectly.
But as this play continues to explore family relationships, the loss of love prevails. In another scene, Marta and Silvana share secrets, the way they did in childhood. Except that now, Silvana, played with expressive charm by actress Marycarmen Wila, sits in Marta’s place at the family table, and takes charge as an inquisitor. Exposed secrets yield gasps of “ohs” and “ahs” of surprise in the audience.
In a sense, all three women in this character study have been living a lie, a life of denial, but are sympathetic—even lovable. And Nucky Walder, in a tour-de-force performance, uses her full emotional range to project Marta’s double life. Marta pokes fun at Silvana’s upper-class ways, or delightfully gossips nonstop about her mother’s cooking or her neighbors’ excesses, as she slurps mate through a straw.
But Walder also effectively portrays Marta’s darker side. When Ruben’s and Alicia’s love letters and grandpa’s death in a mental institution rise to the surface, the two sisters really duke it out. We don’t want the sisters to recriminate and say these things. But when all the secrets spill out, Marta’s survival mechanism has to kick in. Stoical and steely cold to the core, obviously filled with frustration and resentment, Marta continues the care (or is it abuse?) of the daughter she fears will outlive her. This is the mother we love to fear, even hate, but the one who represents the unifying force which keeps families together. Like that framed photo spotlighted on stage.
If ever there was a stage image of death in life, the scene that follows is it. Marta gives Alicia a sponge bath, down to washing her feet. When Alicia finally breaks her sound barrier and speaks out to her mother and aunt, it comes so unexpectedly, the repetitive riffs of the dialogue reach a poetic, even magical level. But again, Marta and Silvana don’t hear and we’re left to wonder: Was Alicia’s breakdown caused by a brain injury, a slip and fall on an icy street? Was it familial abuse or inherited from grandpa? Or was it frustrated love and broken heartstrings, as the title suggests?
Translated English surtitles in the overheads by Michael Gunn and Marcela Ferlito are paced well with the Spanish spoken on stage. But instead of asking audience members to read print-outs of bolero lyrics in the lobby, it would be better to include them, if possible, in the overhead projections for non-Spanish speakers. The lyrics are so apt it would be a shame to miss them.
Rifar El Corazon (Heartstrings)
By Uruguayan playwright, Dino Armas
Directed by Mario Marcel
Produced by Teatro de la Luna at the Gunston Art Center
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy