The rap on the wrap-up of the 2010/2011 Hispanic Theatre season in Washington D.C. is that as far as audiences are concerned, GALA Hispanic Theatre and Teatro de la Luna must be doing something right. In spite of funding cuts, the two Spanish-speaking theater groups have enjoyed strong box office support, garnered positive to enviable reviews, and enjoyed packed houses.
Spanish theater offers a totally different perspective.
Last fall, after a Teatro de la Luna production, I asked several audience members at the Gunston Arts Centre why they came. Whether they were English-only speakers or fluent in Spanish, they agreed that seeing Hispanic theatre gave them totally different perspectives on the world. As the season developed, I felt my own sensitivity to different Latino cultures expand.
So once again, during DCTheatre Scene Audience Choice Awards, I list my favorite discoveries of works written in Spanish, and tell you why they are important. I’m only writing about the plays and performances I’ve seen and reviewed. You are free to comment on or add to the list.
GALA, the flagship of D.C. Hispanic centers, has good reason to celebrate their emphasis on diversity and innovation. In January 2011, GALA founders, Hugo and Rebecca Medrano were recognized for their contributions by being named one of its eleven “Washingtonians of the Year” by Washingtonian Magazine. During the season, they featured the creative output from prominent Spanish writers. And in two instances, the Medranos imported two international directors, one from Spain, and one from Colombia.
1. Instead of denying funding to theater companies, members of Congress ought to take front row seats at plays like The Knight from Olmedo/El Caballero de Olmedo, by Lope de Vega. This 17th century classic from the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre, directed by Jose Luis Arellano- Garcia, from Madrid, Spain, was presented in a style so stunningly modern, so relevant, its troubling truths are still ringing in my head. When I saw The New Musical Development Foundation’s musical, Who’s Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the Iraq War at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, I immediately thought of Alonso, the good-hearted, innocent hero in The Knight from Olmedo. Why do the good and pure-of-heart die young?
In Who’s Your Baghdaddy? an all-too-human defector from a third world country trades lies for a chance to drive a Mercedes, chase chicks, and live the high life. And once caught in the quagmire, the U. S. bureaucrats, obsessed with protecting their own turf, blind themselves to the truth about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. In spite of warnings, why did the American investigator, the hero, blindly believe an Iraqi snitch? How could he have been so naïve?
The same question is explored in Lope de Vega’s 17th century classic Olmedo.The hero Alonso assumes his spiritual purity and the chivalric code of Honor will protect him. He also foolishly believes his enemy follows the same code. Just as Alonso is following an antiquated code of Honor, in Baghdaddy, the American intelligence investigator, and military bureaucracy pursue outdated rules of engagement.
What made GALA’s Olmedo unique was the directing and staging from Accion del Sur’s director Arellano-Garcia. Lope de Vega’s language can seem ancient and remote. But Garcia disarmed us. Lope de Vega’s poetic, often static, rhetorical text came across as startling because of the actors’ organic physicality, such as broad, sweeping gestures and pratfalls. Fortunately, the Synetic Theater has introduced us to physical theater as a style for communication. But at the GALA, the text was sublimely enhanced to involve us viscerally.
Talk about taking chances on what could have been perceived as corny. When Alonso is so wounded by the gaze from Ines, the actor falls to the floor, flat-on-his back, like a gored matador, or when two ecstatic sisters roll on the floor like kittens, we sat transfixed. These stage movements seemed so motivated. Yet we had never quite seen anything like this before except in slapstick comedy. Later, Alonso stood stock-still against a jet black backdrop and recited the eloquent soliloquy on how the hawk swoops on the goldfinch, a prophecy of his murder. The contrast between absurd, hyperactive behavior and paralyzed stillness was brilliantly vivid.
If only our foreign policy makers had seen El Caballero de Olmedo and heard Lope de Vega’s needling voice: “Yours is a stupid kind of courage.” Use critical thinking, use common sense and investigate more before declaring war. This Lope de Vega play can be ranked in the same league with Shakespeare for its universality and modern relevance; and GALA rises to the level of importance with the Shakespeare Theatre. For me, El Caballero de Olmedo ranked as one of the most outstanding productions of the 2010/2011 season.
2. The contemporary classic The Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother (La Candida Erendira) was the season’s biggest box office draw, according to GALA’s Associate Producing Director Abel Lopez. The audience knows the dark fantasy fairy tale from reading the novella, “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Ernedira and Her Heartless Grandmother,” by Nobel Laureate (1982), Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Staging modern classics like this is important because it makes them accessible to a wider audience.
Director Jorge Ali Triana adapted the original novella for the stage, based on a real life incident about a grandmother who sells her granddaughter for rape and prostitution and recreated Marquez’ signature brand of magical realism. It isn’t lyrical magic realism as in playwright Aristides Vargas’s The Aging of the Plum/La Edad de la Ciruella (produced in 2008). Marquez’ magical realism is outrageously grotesque and exaggerated to zap us with a social message. Why do innocent children have to suffer? The last image of actress Paola Baldion as Erendira trudging stoically into the wilderness on a revolving turntable-wheel of Fate is heartbreaking. Although Erendira is alone and free at last, she is still trapped in an indifferent universe. You wanted to reach out and protect her and all children—an important, memorable stage moment.
The Helen Hayes judges missed an opportunity. Not only imaginative staging but also superb collaboration between international and local actors made this production doubly satisfying. The actress Laura Garcia from Colombia became Evil incarnate, both vile and sympathetic, in a multi-layered performance that alternates between hallucination and physical action. The actress shows us how the grandmother was forced into sex as a young woman. And for one fleeting moment, when the grandmother drives off the men lined up for sex with Erendira, we empathize with her protective instincts. Garcia’s every moment on stage was worth a return visit. I saw her performance twice and have nominated her for the highest acting award possible in DCTheatrescene’s Audience Choice Awards.
3. Teatro de la Luna’s 13th International Hispanic Theatre Festival went global from mid-October to November, 2010, and under the theme “Embracing Dreams/Abrazando Suenos,” imported fresh ideas from Venezuela, Spain, two plays from Argentina; Dominican Republic, and Paraguay. The U.S. once again was represented by an environmentally-friendly children’s play by Jacqueline Briceno, author of well-known The Cat and the Seagull. These all-too-brief runs last season at the Gunston Arts Centre in Arlington, Virginia, played to mostly full houses.
– Drops of Water/Gotas de Agua, the bilingual family play by Briceno about protecting water quality was a splash hit with the kids. Experimentally staged with the ancient art of Black Lighting, gloved-hands became finger puppets that acted out the disaster that could happen to three luminescent world globes. Notable ensemble playing by Peter Pereya, Alex Alburqueque induced lively interaction with children in the audience and got across the idea of the importance of taking care of the planet. Who could forget Marcela Ferlito’s acting out a flower crying because she is watered with polluted water?
– My Husband is a Cuckold/Mi Marido es un Cornudo, by Venezuelan playwright Elizabeth Fuentes, turned the tables on macho philandering and attacked the myth that infidelity is bliss. Actress Elba Escobar, also the Honorary President of the annual 13th Festival, played to overflowing audiences with charm, and light-hearted fun that was contagious.
– Ubu Rey, from the Dominican Republic. Part of Teatro de la Luna’s International Hispanic Theatre Festival was a sleeper about the abuse of power that deserved more publicity. Two Dominican actors from Teatro Guyumba performed Alfred Jarry’s brutally grotesque 1896 satire, heralded by theater historian Martin Esslin, as one of the first theater-of-the-absurd plays by a 19th century playwright. King Ubu murders the nobles and confiscates their property and wealth; then he refuses to share his horded gold. Instead he gives his subjects bagfuls of paper money with his face printed on the bills. At the turn of the 20th century, the message in this play could not be openly expressed in daily life; but on stage, it was permitted.
– The Happiest Day of Our Lives, a black comedy from Spain, by Laila Ripoll, was a play about three sisters who wait for their lives to unfold but fulfillment never happens.
The satire takes aim at the former Fascist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco’s collaboration with the Catholic Church.
4. What needs to be said but can’t be openly expressed on the street can be spoken and heard in a black comedy like Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas, produced by GALA. For two hours it’s safe to look at ourselves more critically and see the abuse that goes on. Theater is not just about entertainment and escape. The not-so-often mentioned work of the scenic designer (Daniel Pinha) was worth 1,000 words: a floor-to-ceiling drawing of a man’s face, open-mouthed and yelling that conveyed the nightmarish reality of spousal abuse. The character Gloria (Menchu Esteban) spews out the details of the physical and psychological abuse she has endured. Ultimately she unifies three women, who stop competing and squabbling and find strength within to be themselves rather than what their male partners want them to be. The hidden shame of physical and mental abuse of women in a macho culture is wrong and must be stopped. Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott’s contemporary play forces us to think.
5. As If It Were Tonight/Como Si Fuera Esta Noche. This main stage production from Teatro de la Luna echoed the domestic abuse theme by telling it as it is in a more poetic, surreal way. Scenes shift back and forth from present to past, suspending time the way memory works. This hauntingly beautiful play, staged with symbolic gestures (using a twisted sheet as an umbilical cord), slowly uncovers the relationship between a mother and daughter and exposes the cycle of domestic abuse that is passed on between generations.
6. Canto Al Peru Negro (Song for Black Peru). A musical revue with book written by Gabriel Garcia, the well-know Argentine- American writer (Las Paredes, 2007). This musical celebrates endurance and survival through folk songs the slaves composed, from the time Spanish invaders brought African slaves to Peru in the 1520s. The skits illustrate how dance and theatrical enactments pass on traditions and history between generations to present day—specifically mothers and daughters (local singer/dancer Vicky Levya and daughters Vanessa and Susan).
This beautifully rich show was notable for its barrier-breaking, gutsy fire power, its gut-level fun and vitality. This was the first time this reviewer had heard the incendiary lyrics of Nicodemus Cruz, about the hypocrisy of black people who deny their cultural identity as well as the poetry about black pride. Exuberant performances instill greater respect for cultural heritage.
7. 3 Rascals is a vaudevillian slapstick stand-up comedy act, thematically framed as From Uruguay with Laughter: The 3 Rascals/ Del Uruguay con Humor (A3Vidos). Cabaret artists perform the fine art of Café Concert rioplatense, popular in Montevideo, Uruguay. Petru Valenski, lead actor/comedian, celebrates freedom of expression under constitutional democracy after decades of repressive censorship under dictatorial regimes. Assisted by trumpeter Fabian Silva and drummer Danilo Mazzo, these three nightclub performers deliver satire of Latino politics from a Uruguayan point of view, an hysterical historical perspective. But there were moments of black humor, the rippling undercurrent of existential despair in the ballad, based on haunting poetry from Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti. It was like listening to voices from the underground of dead who were not among the survivors of the decades of dictatorships.
The 3 Rascals balanced comedienne Gracia Rodriguez’s one woman appeal for women’s unity in How to Avoid Falling in Love with the Wrong Man, performed two weeks earlier. Rodriguez, a charismatic, dynamic generous performer, drew out the female Latino audience.
8. Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers, part of GALA’s ArteAmericA series, presenting experimental Latino art forms, such as this one-man-monologist, Jose Torres-Tama from Ecuador. Subtitled “A Bilingual Sci-Fi Latino Noir Performance,” Torres-Tama, using film clips, revives too quickly forgotten recent history by taking us back to the 1980s civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. He reminds us that Central American freedom fighters were rebelling against either U.S. military occupation or indirect support of corrupt dictatorships. This writer/performer humanizes under-reported back page stories by projecting headlines on a drop-screen about the rising rate of hate-crimes committed against Latino workers, about the Mexican “jumping beans,” who jump the border to get free welfare benefits.
9. Numancia, an adapted Miguel de Cervantes’ 16th century play, was about a small town’s well-known mass-suicide that took place in 134 B.C. at a turning point in Roman history is, as famous to Spanish speakers as Masada in 73 A.D. is to English speakers. The Teatro de Parla Youth Company was directed by Jose Luis Arellano Garcia, who earlier in the season directed Lope de Vega’s The Knight from Olmedo/El Caballero de Olmedo and Sheep Fountain/Fuente Ovejuna in 2009. This enactment was set to rock music with high-school and college-aged students as actors, costumed in black T-shirts, etched with GUERRA (war), ENFERMEDAD (disease), and HAMBRE (famine). This Cervantes play, better known in Europe, is fairly unknown. This under-reported production was presented as part of GALA’s commitment to international cultural exchange, this one with Spain.
10. Paso Nuevo is GALA’s after school youth workshop. After seeing their right-on bilingual La Familia Lobato:Young and Corrupted/Joven y Corrupto, Saturday, August 13, I have come to the conclusion that more students in Washington D.C. need to see this honest, collaborative play, written in English, Spanish and Spanglish, by the kids who participated in the this year’s youth program which came close to being eliminated because of government cuts.
Directed by Quique Aviles, Matthew Vaky and Marta McKeown, the script is about Latino young people, whose parents are immigrants, living in Washington D.C. (Mt. Pleasant). It’s about their prejudices, anxieties, fears of being different, whether they’re too dark skinned or too light to be accepted. When two totally different cultures confront, one corrupts the other. Or one culture enriches the other. We like to think the melting pot blends into a better world. But animosity, racial prejudice and gang violence that started in the old country are blocking the way.
The script is written by the kids, with adult guidance, in the six-week summer program. The skits express the struggles to grow up whole and human in a world still laced with racial prejudice between African Americans, Dominicans and Salvedoreans. This show celebrates confrontation and brings race prejudice out of the closet. With kids like these youngsters from Paso Nuevo, there’s hope for tomorrow’s world.
Laura Garcia-the Colombian actress tops the list for her portrayal of the Abuela, Grandmother in The Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother (La Candida Erendira).
Emme Bonilla as Dona Ines; and Juan Caballero as Don Alonso, in El Caballero de Olmedo.
Paola Baldion as Erendira and Ignacio Meneses as Ulises embodied Marquez’ message of the redemptive power of love in their love scene in the tent, transformed from a bordello into a holy shrine. In The Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother.
Menchu Esteban (as Gloria), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (as Meche) and Monalisa Arias (as Beatriz) for ensemble acting that convinced us of the strong impact women can have when they rise above their competitiveness, rise above domestic abuse and band together in Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas.
Vicky Leyva, “The Mulatta Flower of Peru,” daughters Vanessa Diaz and Susan Duston, and dancer Jose Manuel Ozuna-Baez, and the ensemble of performers in Canto Al Peru (Song for Black Peru).
Jose Torres-Tama in his experimental, tell-it-as-it-is docu-drama, Latino Noir, sci-fi, solo show, lampooning the immigrant’s hope of freedom from racial prejudice in Aliens, Immigrants and Other Evildoers.
The Teatro de la Luna International Festival of Hispanic Theatre brings the most outstanding performers from Latin American countries. All are excellent but these names are must-mentions:
Elba Escobar as the wanderlust wife full of zest for extramarital adventure in My Husband is a Cuckold (Mi Marido es un Cornudo).
Marcela Ferlito, as the polluted flower, in Drops of Water, as well as Peter Pereya and Alex Alberqueque who all three form an ensemble team.
Karen Morales-Chacana, as the daughter, Clara, paired with Andrea Aranguren, as the gentle mother, Mercedes, in Como Si Fuera Esta Noche (As If It Were Tonight).
Petru Valenski, the lead stand-up comedian for The 3 Rascals from Uruguay.