The GALA Theatre company has outdone Monte Python with the Washington premiere of this quirky, over-the-top political satire by Carlos Ferrari. This burlesque of the history of European and American colonization in two hours adds depth to the genre of the musical revue.
“We’re glad to be alive and here!” the GALA ensemble of eight actors (a mix of New Yorkers, Puerto Ricans and locals) belt out with galvanizing joy. The salsa band, Sin Miedo (Without Fear), led by Didier Prossaird, adds hypnotic excitement. ¡Fua! sounds like an explosive fricative, an upbeat boisterous celebration of survival, used in the opening and closing song, “Puerto Rico…¡Fuá!,” to frame a fun-filled, phenomenal show.
So this is the ideal. For Puerto Rico, held in esteem as “The Jewel of the Carribbean, has often been dubbed as “the bridge between cultures,” or crossroads between two Americas, North and South. The actual reality is another story.
Note – throughout this musical, the meaning of the word “Fua” changes. Is it a curse, a cry to God, an obscenity, a yelp of pain, disgust, or what? That haunting question is part of the fun. It’s a question of identity. Puerto Ricans in the audience know that the island in the Caribbean, is a hybrid without statehood. It’s a territory, a commonwealth, with freedom to elect its own leaders, but has no rights to vote in U.S. elections. The territory can be thought of as nothing nowhere, beyond infinity; therefore, it’s ¡Fua!
Stage designer Luciana Stecconi’s set draws us into a semi-circle, one-ring circus, staged for clowning and some explosive high-powered emoting. A false proscenium red, draw-curtained stage is overpowered by a red-white-and-blue, faded frame backdrop. The smaller stage within a larger framework appears to symbolize Puerto Rico’s status relative to the U.S. Gauzy curtains dropped in to suggest an exotic garden.
The characters are allegorical, none have individual names and represent abstractions, such as,” “Island,” and “Uncle Sam,” “Clown 1 and 2,” “The Conquistadores,” “Man 1,” or “Man 2,” “Tourist 1, 2, and 3,” “Gringo”…..etc. The actors, who impersonate many characters, are identified in the program by first names only: as Isabel, Anamer, Jeffrey, Joel, Rita, Jose, Ricardo and Antonio. It can be confusing at first; but the main focus is on text and lyrics; and on what’s happening in often-neglected, chaotic Puerto Rican history.
The style, as directed by Luis Caballero and resident director Hugo Medrano, is consistently exaggerated, unexpectedly light-hearted and theatrical, even surreal. Most of the skits crescendo to a peak, either a proverbial punch line or an ironic twist. In an opening scene, “Comienzo de la isla,” for instance, enacted by the entire company, a “Voice,” or narrator, (Ricardo Puente), tells us, that “in the beginning,…on the island,” the gentle, native Tainos in a tropical paradise were at the mercy of the cruel, cannibalistic Caribs. Then the two tribes united against a fate far more destructive than any of the frequent hurricanes: the Conquistadores. A surprisingly cheerful Spanish dance (Pasodoble) and song about lust for gold follows. The message is as balanced as the action: Exploitation is double-edged. Indigenous natives were as cruel in their devouring of each other as the Europeans were in their oppression of them.
Underneath the surface, there is rich grim humor to savor. The Friar (Ricardo who double-plays many roles), spouting Church dogma, acts under orders from the Spanish crown, and the situation worsens. When the Black Man is captured in Africa to ease the colony’s labor shortage, he is carried off in a crucifix pose. The Black Man, representing all African slaves, is poignantly portrayed by elastic-bodied dancer/actor Jose Manuel Ozuna-Baez, who, along with Antonio Vargas, impressively choreographed the show. Jose also delivers a gut-wrenching, shining moment in “Solo de negro,” (Black Man Solo). The Black Man is branded with a hot iron, called a “carimbo,” ironically the name of an African harvest dance.
The collaborative directing talents of Caballero and Medrano, works brilliantly from the get-go, in the way embedded rage is highlighted in children’s songs used as protest. Part of what makes this revue so refreshing are the needling nuances beneath the matter-of-fact innocence. One worth mentioning is the juicy mockery in the well-known Latin American circle-game and song, “Song of Dona Ana,” (La ronda de Dona Ana). The children raise a question: “Dona Ana is not here … and we come here to ask:/What happened to the wealth and the gold that we had?” When the hurricanes come, there is no threat of devastation, Puerto Rico is already dead. Kudos to lighting designer, Andrew F. Griffin, and sound designer Brendon Vierra for eased-in, effective storm surges.
The answer to the whereabouts of the gold is revealed in “Rich Port, Poor Port,” (Puerto Rico, puerto pobre), delivered with enough charismatic dynamite to raise the roof, if not the living standard of the natives, by golden-voiced Anamer Castrello, Isabel H. Arraiza and Antonio Vargas. Stripped of its wealth, Puerto Rico has lost its individuality. The European conquerors have moved on to Peru to search for Incan gold, and left behind the Jibaros, the mountain farmers, with starvation and disease. Later, the still existing peasant surfs, a threatened species, are invaluable preservers of the native foods, the gandinga, a pig liver stew, alcapurria, stuffed green banana fritters, and mofongo, fried crushed plaintains.
In Act II, the pace accelerates with the coming of 1800. The full company acts out a whirlwind CliffsNotes version of the revolt against Spanish rule. “Fua!” changes into a defiant cry for freedom. In 1812, The King grants Puerto Rico rights under a constitution as a “province.” In 1814, the Constitution is revoked. In 1812, The Spanish Courts approve the Constitution. In 1825, the Courts annul the constitution. Puerto Rico is again a colony. In reaction, the cry of !Fua! becomes an obscenity. Then in 1868, The Cry of Lares, (El Grito de Lares), the first major revolt against Spanish rule takes place. Yet, the revolution led by Ramon Betances, considered “the father of the “Puerto Rican homeland,” fails.
From this point, the momentum builds to the ultimate confrontation between continents in the 1898 Spanish-American War. Ferrari, the playwright, presents this landmark war as “a real clown act,” in two highpoint scenes. As pantomiming clowns, actors Joel Perez and Antonio Vargas, in Clowns I (Payasos I) and Clowns II (Payasos II), revive the infamous sinking of the Maine. This marks the time that the U.S. takes over the island colony and the fusion of the languages, or Spanglish, begins, as described in “Beguin the beguin,” sung by Puerto Rican actress Rita Ortiz.
What is the price of assimilation? In Union matrimonial, the character of Island (Isabel H. Arraiza) and Uncle Sam (Joel Perez) marry. And the Minister (Ricardo) tells them that Puertorricanos as U.S. citizens are free to die in the military service; but are economically controlled and without political power. In a hilarious lampoon of a wedding ceremony, the Island of Puerto Rico is personified as a burned-out, barely-able-to-stand rag doll, (Isabel) who hangs on the arm of the overpowering, militaristic Uncle Sam. The climax to their marriage ceremony, conducted by a cynical, hypocritical Minister (Ricardo) says everything about loss through assimilation.
The actors all have strong, resonant, beautifully vibrant singing voices. Joel Perez, an import from New York and the In The Heights touring company, is a name to remember and a performer to watch. As the Professor, Perez’ delivery of “Song of the Alphabet” (“El abacedario”) is a show-stopper. as well as his smoldering “They call me spik,” from “Nuyorican” (New York Puerto Rican). Anamer Castrello, well-known in the Hispanic community for her warm operatic mezzo soprano voice has some outstanding, spine-tingling moments. Other notable performances come from: Antonio Vargas, who cross-dresses (costumes by Alicia Tessari Neiman) in drag for Prostitutas, The Prostitutes.
The confrontation between the two Americas is where the sardonic, hard-ball satire hits the solar plexus in a thrilling climax of “Fua, Fua, Fua” with all stops out. After the history of Puerto Rico in two hours, you have enough evidence to translate ¡Fua! yourselves. It’s a wild, wacky romp well worth experiencing.
A curtain call reinforced the survival theme. Soprano Anamer Castrello sang, with deep feeling, Noel Estrada’s “In My Old San Juan, (En Mi Viejo San Juan)”, Puerto Rico’s second national anthem, the equivalent of “America, the Beautiful.” ¡Fua! Forever.
Puerto Rico…¡Fuá! runs thru July 1, 2012 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street, NW Washington, DC.
Puerto Rico…¡Fuá!, a Washington D.C. premiere
By Carlos Ferrari
English Translation by Angel S. Torres-Cabassa
Directed by Luis Caballero (from Puerto Rico) and Hugo Medrano
Choreography by Jose Manuel Ozuna-Baez, and Antonio Vargas
Musical Direction by Didier Prossaird of Sin Miedo
Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli Square
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: 2 Hours with one 15 minute intermission.