Looking back at the excellence in the 2009-2010 Hispanic Theatre season is really looking forward to more to come. This summer, after working in a coffee community, a voluntary collective of “fincas” (small farms), and living with a family in El Salvador, I emerge ever more wide-eyed and aware of the great need for more Hispanic theater. Why? Why even bother seeing Spanish language plays?
First of all, differences between two theatrical literatures don’t end with language barriers. We live and come from vastly different worlds, with individual outlooks, cultures and histories. One isn’t necessarily better; they just are what they are. And the need is great for deep insight into why people do what they do. We need artists who write plays that increase cultural understanding. I came home thinking of the rare opportunities we have in the Washington area to see live performances of Spanish language classics, musicals and cutting-edge modern plays, produced with translated English surtitles, at two professional venues: the GALA Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli Square in D.C.; and Teatro de la Luna at the Gunston Arts Center, in Arlington, Virginia.
Secondly, the choices are fantastic. Since moving to Washington over a decade ago, I’ve seen classics from the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre I could only imagine in my head. Seeing on stage what I’ve read forces me to reevaluate my own identity, my own European-Spanish and Los Angeles-Mexican Hispanic heritage – where I came from and where I’m going.
My favorite Hispanic theater productions last season? I’ve listed ten along with some, not all, of the most memorable performances. You can add to the list by making comments. All I can write about are the plays and performances I’ve enjoyed reviewing and why.
1. El Retablillo de Don Cristobal, The Farce of Don Cristobal and the Maiden Rosita, by Federico Garcia Lorca. (a.k.a. The Bully-Puppet Play of Don Cristobal and Rosita), in Spanish with some English, at the Gala Hispanic Theatre in Tivoli Square. I expected to shut down my mind and laugh a lot. Instead, the anti-war statement was a pleasurable shock. The GALA players went far beyond titillating us with an in-your-face puppet play that ridiculed the battle between the sexes. This little farce was stinging satire written in the 1930s, a potent weapon taking direct aim at those in power. But in doing it, the GALA ensemble achieved something fresh, phenomenal and great.
They used Brechtian concepts to force us to relive and re-think the war. Starting in the lobby, TV screens aired 1930s news footage and documentaries on the Spanish Civil War. The actors on stage talked directly to us as they broke the fourth wall and reenacted writing real letters, handed down from Spanish Civil War veterans. They sang battle songs that came from the Republicans (anti-Franco) and the American volunteers (the Abraham Lincoln Brigade ). Puppeteers on a cart (as if from Brecht’s Mother Courage) acted out Lorca’s Don Cristobal and Rosita to divert the troops from the horrors of war.
Magically, the story of Don Cristobal and Rosita came to life, featuring over-the-top actors: Angel Torres, who deserves a Helen Hayes award for playing the cuckolded Cristobal full-throttle; Belen Oyola-Rebaza, equally full of life, was bouncy and beguiling as the over-sexed Rosita, and Mel Rocher was aptly cynical as one of Rosita’s lovers. Argentine puppeteer Ximena Bianchi designed with skill and loving care these puppets that look like real, pint-sized human beings, along with the hand puppets who acted out slap-stick ribaldry. Her stage director father, Adhemar Bianchi, synchronized an ensemble that alternated scenes between live actors, hand puppets and costumed string puppets. It was ingenius ensemble work that was thought-provoking and infinitely enjoyable because it’s memorable. Kudos to the GALA Theatre Company for staging a unique fusion of magical realism that resurrected these tragic historical events and made us laugh—sometimes hysterically, sometimes painfully. Bring back those puppets!
2. Beauty of the Father by Cuban-born Nilo Cruz, who writes in English, won the Pulitzer Prize for Anna in the Tropics in 2003. With sensitive direction by Abel Lopez, Beauty of the Father stood out for lyrical language and its sonata-like format last season. Cruz is an insurgent-artist who gently topples the traditional structure of rising action, climax and denouement by courageously letting his play end anti-climactically. The unexpected reversal reflects the modern Spanish mind-set. Even this generation, still coming to grips with the senseless murder of Garcia Lorca during the Civil War, is sick of climactic violent endings. As for the GALA’s production, stage director Lopez staged a convincing double reality of declining values that come with the breakdown of families and old world traditions. Dan Istrate (better known at the Synetic Theater) gave a great performance as Federico Garcia Lorca, who is invisible to other characters in Act I, but who becomes a real person interacting with other characters in Act II. Istrate made that delicate transition from an ethereal to a physical presence effortlessly believable. “Oh, I get it,” an audience member said afterwards. “Lorca is no longer only in our minds. Lorca is here—with us always.” Bravo to the GALA ensemble for communicating that concept!
3. Teatro de la Luna’s International Hispanic Theatre Festival that runs annually from October through mid-November proves you don’t have to pay the airfare to fly. Just cross the Potomac where different Latin American acting companies send performing artists, who serve as great ambassadors for their home culture. Diplomats from Washington often show up on opening night.
The bilingual family play, El Gato Y La Gaviota. The Cat and the Seagull, in Spanish and English, made me feel most proud of Teatro de la Luna’s entry from the U.S.A. The Cat and the Seagull was a breath of fresh air that blew out of the children’s classification into the limelight of a fable for adults as well. Especially now within the context of the Gulf oil spill, this gem of a play has a future. I hope to see it again this season at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre for a larger audience. With its subplot about an adopted orphan, this one-act, based on a children’s novel by Luis Sepulveda, is uniquely Hispanic but with a universal message; and one of the best kid’s shows I’ve seen in a long time (and that includes many of D.C.’s children’s theaters.) Marcela Ferlito who plays three roles is splendiloquent. Alex Alburqueque as one of the cats is equally effective.
Another environmentally friendly play is on its way for this season: Gotitas de Agua (Droplets of Water, or Little Drops of Water, as well as more workshops for kids at La Casa de la Luna.
4. In Teatro de la Luna’s 2009 International Hispanic Theatre Festival, featured artists came from Colombia, Argentina (Buenos Aires), Uruguay, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Cordoba (a different region) in Argentina.
Top of the list was the Dominican Republic Teatro Guloya, that delivered an explosive Aristedes Vargas one-act, Nuestra Senora de las Nubes (Our Lady of the Clouds), a wry piece satirizing arranged marriage, class snobbery, forced migration, genocide and the need for speaking up. “They didn’t know they were assassins but when I was carried off, they were silent.” That one line delivered by an actor from the Teatro Guloya, still reminds me of Martin Niemoller’s famous Holocaust quote: “Then they came for me…and by that time no one was left to speak up.” Americans forget—sometimes immigrants are running for their lives.
Saulo Garcia from Columbia. In his one-man show, El Somnio Americano (The American Insomnia), Garcia is a “comedic troubadour,” who jokes non-stop about immigration nightmares, and sings, “Give me the fare so I can go back home.” But deep down, he’s already addicted to the American Dream in contrast to the gang violence waiting for him in his native country.
Andrea Julia from Buenos Aires, Argentina, gave an outstanding stream-of-consciousness, tour-de-force performance, Abanico de Soltera,(Fan of a Single Woman), that made you want to see more of this actress. Her soaring tribute to Garcia Lorca was enriched by pools of shadow and spotlight and carefully selected symbolic props, like Salvador Dali’s melted clock. Not a gesture was wasted.
5. Lucido (Lucid) by Rafael Spregelburd, a fascinating Argentine playwright and play in Spanish about “lucid dreaming,” about a lost generation of dislocated, anxious people, disconnected by emigration and mysterious events. Held together like a poem of repeated phrases or riffs, Lucido was given a dreamscape staging by director Jose Carrasquillo, with a pyrotechnic ending that was great. A flying saucer lands and two characters disappear. At the GALA Tivoli Theatre, the set was visually stunning. Acclaimed for his contributions to the “Theatre of Disintegration,” and its upchucking of happy endings, what Spregelburd seemed to be saying was: “Throw out the old order and let’s start over.” Fantastic.
Yet despite fine ensemble work, Lucido, for me, felt as if too much was thrown out on the cutting-room floor or not translated. Peter Pereya did a wonderful comic turn dressed as a woman. Carlos Castillo as the waiter almost stole the first scene. Anabel Marcano was a private teenage rebel at home. Then there was that mystifying, agonized outcry from Cynthia Benjamin that called to mind the Plaza de Mayo mothers’ marches in Buenos Aires, protesting the disappearance of children. My research revealed that Spregelburd takes care to avoid outspoken political statements. That outcry may be the key. For security reasons, Spregelburd’s characters don’t speak out publically. Or maybe they don’t, because Spregelburd is a generation removed from the civilian kidnappings during the 1970’s Dirty War under the military regimes. His characters seem to give up on resisting authority. Going along is easier. Passivity is survival. In Las Paredes (The Walls), a well-structured 1963 work by Griselda Gambaro, another Argentine playwright, produced in 2007, actually showed us what happened to the disappeared ones. Gambaro was more explicit. And that play left more of an indelible mark on me.
6. Rifar el Corazon (Heartstrings), by Uruguayan Dino Armas, a black comedy about how three women in a family cope with a scandalous secret really cuts across cultural lines in its theme of overwhelming loss and retrieval. This play in four scenes, that is highly theatrical because of the use of soliloquies the other characters cannot hear, was revived by popular demand from one of Teatro de la Luna’s International Festivals. It became one of my favorites because of Armas’ poetic handling of forbidden subjects. Nucky Walder pulled out all the stops in her portrayal of Marta, the domineering mother in charge of her mute, clinically depressed, grown daughter, confined to a wheelchair. Bolivian actress Yovinca Arredondo Justiniano did an outstanding job of acting out the duel reality of a fractured mind. Her soliloquies exposing the past abuse and the family secrets, that only we in the audience can hear, were effectively modulated to avoid melodrama.
7. El Bola (The Snowball)—Cuba’s King of Song by Hector Quintero from Cuba. This show had so much heart in it I’d go see it again. It was a courageous attempt at a musical introducing us to Ignacio “Snowball” Villa, a survivor of Castro’s homophobic Cuba, who had strong homosexual tendencies and whose music made a profound impact on Cuban jazz. I went along with the frame plot line to a point until it got into witchcraft and finances. A director, Hector is rehearsing a revue he’s passionately researched and just has to share with us.
GALA’s hit musical revue, The Latido Negro: Peru’s African Beat. 2007, based the musical numbers on the same story line. And Maurice Hines as the Director and the Duke himself used it in Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies and played to sold out houses at the Lincoln Theatre. El Bola wasn’t quite that big a hit, but some of the El Bola’s music coming from Combo Sin Miedo came close in quality, thanks to Anamer Castrello, who was just sensational as Madrina. Plus the set design and patterned lighting reinforced the jazz rhythms and fed us a visual feast. A lot can compensate for a faulty script, which could take some reworking. I think Quintero knows that so there’s hope for a reprise.
But El Bola missed its target. Castro murdered gays. Why not come out and expose it? The gay theme, whether latent or not, is hot material, relevant in light of Castro’s niece. Mariela Castro Espin is the initiator of a 2008 resolution for performing sex change operations within Cuba’s health care system. The closest reference Quintero makes to that current event is the character of the transvestite Marian Fernandez, played with flamboyant abandon by Enrique Divine, who is exuberant in his/her impersonations of Edith Piaf, among others.
8. In Los Treinta, a one-man show, Quique Aviles, also a community activist, speaks volumes about the human condition through his expatriation from his native El Salvador. It’s his way of using the arts as a weapon to overcome the tragic mistakes made in U.S. foreign policy during the 1980’s Salvadorean Civil War. .
The Salvadorean exiles, now citizens, I talked to during Quique’s performance July 30 and 31, said they can identify. They understand that in El Salvador, when you’re trying to find food for the day and have no shoes, it’s hard to think about writing a play. So there haven’t been a lot of plays coming directly out of the country today. Here in Columbia Heights, the Salvadoreans go to the theater to see Quique for catharsis, as the Greeks did. Rather than release their pain, sorrow and rage in real life, Quique can do it for them on stage. Quique can do even more. He can get us to laugh at our pain. Now that is a gift for both the performer and the observer in the audience.
Yet my husband, during one of Aviles’s performances, remarked that the audience laughed at different times than he did. So here’s an important back story that adds depth to Aviles’ satire.
How many Anglo-Americans know the nasty historical background that goes back to the genocidal massacres of murdered indigenous populations in the 1930s? Also, in 1930, the dictatorial general who was president (General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez) laid down race laws that blocked “blacks” from Africa and elsewhere from entering. These laws remained in effect until thrown out in the 1980s. (Ironically the 12-year war in 1980s broke down the barriers.) This is the background that sets up Aviles’ gag line about the culture shock Salvadoreans experience upon arriving in Washington D.C. “No one told Salvadoreans there were black people in the U.S. Little did we know we had landed in chocolate city…. along with knives, bats and machetes.” (Big laugh line,) But Aviles doesn’t dwell on gang violence. Aviles deftly sidesteps Salvadorean gang warfare and pours his energies into teaching young people at the GALA. He just directed Los Colores Hablan De Nuevo, The Coloreds Are Talking, an extravaganza that young performers from D.C. neighborhoods performed last weekend..
I look forward to see how Aviles develops as an artist, as a playwright, as a writer, a Salvadorean writer. He makes the pain of history funny. That’s a gift—a great one. After the laugh we may still be hurting but we’re thinking.
9. Chumbale (Every Love Bird Needs a Nest) by Oscar Viale. Even though the subtitle sounds like all out bedroom farce with all five doors slamming, a colloquial translation of the title tells more about what to expect. “Chumbale, chumbale,” is a regional dog command that means “attack, attack,” in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Written in 1971, Viale bravely cries out through his characters for artistic freedom and resistance to anything dictatorial, all because of a can of paint. What I liked about this farce was the whirlwind pacing that anesthetized us so we could absorb the shock therapy references to bigotry, gang rapes and social injustice. A stellar cast, led by Marcela Ferlito and Alex Alburqueque and introducting a newcomer to watch, Karin Tovar Cardenas.
10. Zarzuelas or Spanish-American Musicals, a special category.
Los Gavilanos-The Sparrow Hawks, a zarzuela with libretto and music by Jacinto Guerrero and libretto, and Jose Ramos Martin, from Zarzuela Di Si, at the GALA Hispanic Theatre. Jose Sacin, the tenor I called a baritone in my rave review, has a voice is so rich and ringing with resonance, this operatic singer/actor has a range that could tackle multi-roles. The plot about conquistadores coming home was creaky and uncomfortably old-world; the material sentimental. But who cared? It was a zarzuela with a happy ending and the voices were glorious.
My Favorite Performers?
Alex Alburqueque for his performances as Enzo in Chumbale (Every Love Bird Needs a Nest) and Know-It-All, one of cats, in El Gato y El Gaviota (The Cat and the Seagull).
Monalisa Arias as Mariana in Beauty of the Father, by Nilo Cruz. lit up the stage with her inner radience.
Quique Aviles-for his one-man marathon in Los Treinta.
Cynthia Benjamin-as Tete in Lucido (Lucid)
Anamer Castrello as Madrina in El Bola—Cuba’s King of Song by Hector Quintero.
Marcela Ferlito, in three roles, Colonnello, Afortunata, and Mother Seagull, in El Gato y El Gaviota (The Cat and the Seagull).
Dan Istrate-as Federico Garcia Lorca in Beauty of the Father.
Yovinca Arredondo Justiniano, for her eloquence as Alicia in Rifar el Corozon (Heartstrings)
Kerry Waters Lucas, whose home base is The Keegan Theatre Company, another stand-out as Paquita, the earth-mother, from Beauty of the Father.
Belen Oyola-Rebaza was electrifying as the sexually-charged Rosita in the Bully Puppet Play El Retablillo Don Cristobal and the Maiden Rosita.
Peter Pereya-for Zorba, the cat in El Gato y El Gaviota (The Cat and the Seagull) and Lucas in Lucido (Lucid)
Mel Rocher, as Poeta, cynical mood projected during the battle songs. Supressed rage.
Jose Sacin, as Juan, the rich man, in Los Gavilanes (Sparrow or Wild Hawks), Zarzuela Di Si.
Angel Torres as the cuckholded Don Cristobal, in El Retablillo, The Bully Puppets in Don Cristobal and the Maiden Rosita.
Marcelino Valdes, a guest artist from Miami who speak-sings the patter songs in El Bola, the “Snowball”.
Nucky Walder, Marta in Rifar el Corozon (Heartstrings).
Peter Palmer and Carla Hubner, from Washington Ballet Company and In Series, should get recognition for originality in their collaboration for WAM! (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), In Series.