From the get-go, it’s do or die. Mona Martínez, as Carmela, and Diego Mariani, as Paulino, are as skittish as if dancing in front of a firing squad. Thanks to these two breathtaking theatre artists, ìAy, Carmela!, based on a real life love story, is both funny and profoundly moving on a deeply human level. The actors’ all-out, visceral, tour-de-force performances on opening night brought a full-house audience to a standing ovation.
The GALA Hispanic Theatre, which delivered steller productions last year, now leads off its 36th season with another powerful theatrical blast from the past. ìAy, Carmela!, a play that is at once haunting and relevant, is making its U.S. premiere thanks to this stunning collaboration with Acción Sur of Madrid, Spain.
First of all, to clarify Spanish political labels during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39): The Communists, also nominally labeled Republicans (not to be confused with the U.S. political party), are fighting for jobs and food, freedom and democracy. The Nationalists are the fascists, General Franco’s Hitler-backed, rebel party, who want to revive Spain’s golden years and unite the provinces under a harsh dictatorship, using concentration camps and torture.
Written in 1986, José Sanchis Sinisterra’s award-winning, absurdist tragic-comedy stands out as startling, experimental and unique. Now, Acción Sur director, José Luis Arellano García, who directed the El Caballero de Olmedo for GALA last season, breathes new life into this tragic-comedy.
Here’s the frame: It’s 1938 in Belchite, Spain. The ghost of Carmela visits Paulino in the dimly lit Goya Theatre. The married couple, formerly vaudeville comedians, confront and often talk past each other from their separate realities in a wacky scene that crackles with dramatic tension. Paulino tells the lovers’ story from the viewpoint of a living survivor; whereas Carmela tells it from her viewpoint as a dead martyr.
Paulino, who has a deep instinct for self-preservation at any price, cannot understand why Carmella had to be so brave as to stand up to the fascists and die. Is artistic freedom worth it?, he asks.
In a series of flashbacks, Paulino tells the nucleus story of how, on a foggy morning, the two terrified troubadours, who are sympathetic to the Republicans, blunder into Franco’s territory. The comedians make a deal with an Italian Nationalist lieutenant to ridicule the democratic, fledgling Republic in a vaudeville show for the POWs. If they refuse, they will be shot the next day along with the prisoners, the “reds.” Can Paulino and Carmela pull off a convincing satire, including a magic show, and save their lives?
Reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s graveyard scene in Our Town, a chair facing out effectively places Carmela in the afterlife, an overcrowded limbo that includes the poet Garcia Lorca. Then time shifts. Carmela enters from behind the upstage gold curtain, and she is back in Paulino’s reality, a Spanish Scheherazade who must entertain or die. Aptly cast, Martinez projects a pitch-perfect balance of existentialist, detached sadness, and black humor.
Here’s an example: Carmela tells an upbeat anecdote about the two Catalan women from her afterlife limbo. One is an anarchist, the other communist. In real life, they would kill each other; now, political differences are meaningless. They are dead. So who cares? They become friends.
Mona Martínez, a rare treasure and an amazing actress, is electrifying, earthy and sensual, yet when the moment demands, ethereal and otherworldly. Her every undulating, sensual gesture from her fingertips to toes is inspiringly expressive and truthful. Martínez’s slender and flexible body seems to float effortlessly in scenes both before and after Carmela’s death, until she appears to be indestructible.
In the high point Pasodoble number, “Sighs of Spain,” Martinez uses castanets like organic extensions to her hands. You can sense the fire behind Carmella’s expression of artistic freedom, that will eventually prove fatal.
Paulino is wonderfully effective in cynically projecting what it took to survive in Franco’s Spain. Mariani plays Paulino as a sympathetic, self-tortured man, who beats on his head with his hands and drinks too much after his loss of Carmela. He has done, he realizes, what he needed to do to survive in Franco’s Spain. Some actors act without feeling deeply what they do. They can live a lie. Not willing to lay his life on the line, Paulino has suffered the anguish of guilt but stayed alive.
Mariani has his comic moments that border on slapstick: his delivery of well-paced hysterical chatter makes Paulino sound schizophrenic in his foolish spout-offs of Franco’s propaganda about “Imperial destiny….” When Carmela was alive, Paulino got away with an effective use of his rear end to express his self-contempt for his sell-out of artistic integrity to stay alive: “Farts are songs from the other end of humanity. The baseness of art. The artist’s shame.” If you’re different or a “Communist red”, he tells us in an aside, “, ….poom!….you’re dead.”
He’s describing the civilian executions that have already occurred in occupied northern Basque towns like Guernica, that wanted separatist freedom and independence. But the outcome is clear. Although a survivor, Paulino, wearing a blue Falangist shirt, has been reduced to sweeping the stage because of his anti-heroic lack of resistance. And Carmela has become the dignified, real artist for living by her beliefs, the one exalted into immortality.
Playwright Sinisterra follows the Spanish classical tradition and ends his theatricality with a warning epilogue, or third act, that’s beautifully elevating. Martínez, in repose, projects a mood of sublime peace after the firing squad is silenced. She teaches us and the POWs how to pronounce ‘España.’ As she gently repeats the word, España, Carmela has become an allegorical Spain, a mythical spirit that represents healing.
This play about historical memory is more about the power of theatre art than an anti-war diatribe or political rant. The playwright Sinisterra has a message: Never forget. It is dangerous to forget the history of a civil war or you will repeat it. National unity can be achieved without a dictator. A divided nation is unified through language and culture.
José Luis Arellano García, in ìAy, Carmela!, his fourth bi-national collaboration with GALA stages it in his signature style, on a minimalist, scaled-back set, an open, bare-board platform with lighting grids exposed. Lighting and sound director Antonio Serrano’s technical team synchronizes an impressive symphony of light and sound to clarify time and mood shifts.
The music selected and composed by David R. Peralto, combines atonal militaristic marches and drum tatoos with bullfighting introits.
Even standing still on stage, Martinez appears to be an incarnation of the lyric, “….But bombs can do nothing,/…Where there’s plenty of heart,”/Pero nada pueden bombas…Donde sobra corazon…/,” a line from the Republican anthem, “El Paso del Ebro,” also known as “Ay, Carmela,” repeated like an echoing riff throughout the play. The inspiration behind the song, Carmella’s alliance with the condemned prisoners, becomes a rallying symbol for all brave women of Spain who resisted Franco.
Go to see this stunning production. You won’t want to miss a moment or a word of it. (the translation is just overhead).
In Spanish with overhead surtitle translation by Nilo Cruz and Catalina Botello.
By Jose Sanchis Sinisterra
Directed by José Luis Arellano García
Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and Acción Sur from Spain
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Other GALA/Acción Sur’s bi-national collaborations: