What crosses my mind when I think back over the 2012-2013 Hispanic theatre season? Never lose sight of the impossible dream. Never, under the direst of circumstances, give up. Stay faithful to your mission. Keep reaching for perfection.
The GALA Hispanic Theatre (Grupo de Artistas Latino Americanos/Group of Latin American Artists) is an inspiring paragon. In spite of rising expenses and budget cuts, that cost them one main stage production in 2012-2013, (instead of four, there were three), GALA has delivered a rich and satisfying series of performances that set the highest standards. Now, in this upcoming 2013-2014 season, the GALA will stage four main stage productions. The explosion of creativity continues! And that includes GALita, their magnificent bilingual, intellectually-friendly program for children and the family.
Talk about realizing impossible dreams. A wonder of all wonders happened this past year: The Paso Nuevo Youth Program, under the artistic direction of Quique Avilés, that opens the door to after-school training in drama, writing and technical theater skills, won nationwide recognition. First Lady Michele Obama presented the group invited to the White House with a plaque as a winner of a 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.
Teatro de la Luna, followed suit in the quality over quantity category with their annual 15th International Festival of Hispanic Theater, their select series of Latino plays from Spanish speaking countries. This past year was the best ever. Several penetrating pieces were award-worthy caliber.
And never let me overlook Artistic Director Carla Hübner’s In Series Pocket Opera Company, that continues to recreate itself and make comebacks. I didn’t have a chance to see all their productions this season. But in April, In Series produced a terrific Cabaret Latino, in the intimacy of the Source Theatre. It was an evening in an informal cafe style, of love songs and bolero classics with a Latino beat, delivered by baritone José Sacin, and his accompanist Mari Paz.
To top off their 30th season, this plucky opera company saved the best for last: Love and Money, a Double Thrill: The Soldier’s Tale/L’Histoire du Soldat & Johnny (Gianni) Schicchi, two rarely performed gems, respectively by Igor Stravinsky, and the mock-heroic send-up of grand opera, by Giacomo Puccini. Jesus Daniel Hernandez and Laura Wehrmeyer with strong support from Gene Galvin, as Johnny Schicchi, all gave performances worthy of nominations for best singing and acting in a musical.
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Let’s backtrack to the Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights. The Golden Age of Spanish Theatre serves as a reminder that Spanish literature is not taught in our high schools. There’s no time. Many Americans are starved of the diverse menu of great literature from other cultures. But here in the nation’s capitol, we don’t have to cross borders, thanks to Hugo and Rebecca Medrano, and the GALA’s untiring dedication to keep Hispanic theatre revived, translated, and thriving.
1. Their September 2012 staging of the comedy, In Spite of Love/El desdén con el desdén (literally translated as Disdain with Disdain), by Agustín Moreto, elegantly directed by artistic director Hugo Medrano, revived a 17th century, Spanish Golden Age classic. Once again, the GALA stayed true to their mission to keep the traditional greats alive. Even though this production didn’t break box office records, this well-orchestrated little masterpiece made a superb statement, on the artistic level of a Mozart, or Shakespeare, about the importance of full disclosure and openness.
Think what Shakespeare did in Much Ado About Nothing or Taming of the Shrew. Or think of Ben Johnson’s stock roles in Volpone. The characters can be seen as allegorical, abstract ideas. Yet in the GALA’s staging of Agustín Moreto’s In Spite of Love/El desdén con el desdén, the stereotypes came across as real human beings, thanks to some excellent actors.
Allow me to digress a little because I fell in love with its energetic stew. A street-wise joker, the Moth or Polilla, the gracioso, (Antonio Vargas), is an eavesdropper. Moth personifies the schemer, the mover and shaker, who listens to classified conversations. But instead of being a sneaky insect, who is destructive, this Moth clarifies the difference between illusion and reality, what seems to be happening and what’s really going on. And he makes things better.
Polilla, the Moth, wins the trust of the haughty Princess Diana (Natalia Miranda-Guzman) and tells her, in rapid-fire repartee, what his real name is in Spanish– Caniqui, or Satin. This moth eats satin. What he is telling her metaphorically is that he can hide in her silk chemise and eat, like a worm, into her heart until he knows her feelings about Carlos (Ignacio García-Bustelo), her most ardent admirer.
In this context, the Moth (or worm) does a good deed. He breaks down the defenses between two proud people, who are really in love. Moth brings the two lovers together. Moreover, this wonderful complicated witty dialogue, the layered language, clearly articulated by the actors, was given full, integrated technical support, not often seen, by set designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, and resplendent costuming by Alicia Tessari Neiman. For this reason, I nominated this play for “Best Ensemble” in DC Theatre Scene’s Audience Choice Awards.
By bringing this comedy out of academia and into the Tivoli Theatre, the Medranos introduced us to two, exciting, talented actresses, Natalia Miranda-Guzman, (from Chile and New York City), and Monica Steuer, originally from Brazil, and now New York. Versatile Miranda-Guzman played the coquettish Princess Diana in In Spite of Love, and later in the season, the tormented Alba in The House of the Spirits/La Casa de los espiritus, in which Steuer appeared as the character of Clara.
2) My choice for the best Hispanic Theatre play of the season is, in fact, The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los espiritus), the adaptation by Caridad Svich of Isabel Allende’s ground-breaking 1982 novel, directed by José Zayas, about a large clan of Spanish aristocrats in Chili, the Trueva family. A multi-media stage adaptation, with streaming videos by Alex Koch, successfully captured the images of a vanishing past and the universal ache in those who have left their homelands. The videos also highlight the hallucinations of Alba (Natalia Miranda-Guzmán), while undergoing torture. Ultimately, the play shows us through magical realism how a healing can be realized.
The media was the message. The cyclorama, teeming with handwritten pages from journals, (designed by Koch), effectively illuminates a subconscious narrative of the past that keeps erupting and cannot be changed. These projected images cannot be touched or changed and function as a metaphor for mistakes that are irreversible. The family’s story, preserved through journal writing, was staged to show how necessary it is to never forget, to confront and expose the mistakes of the past to prevent future repetition.
3. DC-7: The Roberto Clemente Story/La Historia de Roberto Clemente, written and directed by Luis Caballero at GALA’s Tivoli Theatre. Soaked with Latin American/Caribbean salsa beats, this bio-musical was award-worthy for its experimental freshness, and memorable stage images. We experienced the life of a baseball legend, “The Great One,” the Pittsburgh Pirates right-fielder, who played ball against debilitating bigotry during the turbulent 1960s.
This play, a resounding hit in Puerto Rico, chronicles how Clemente rose to legendary fame up to the time of his death. The Pittsburgh Pirate’s right fielder, with a whiplash throw, was also a great humanitarian. In 1972, while delivering relief supplies to Nicaragua, suffering from a devastating earthquake months before, Clemente’s plane crashed off the coast of his native Puerto Rico. The corrupt dictator, Anastasio Somoza was siphoning off for himself all international relief efforts. And Clemente, committed himself, to fly in supplies in person to make sure the needy recipients received them. He was pitting his international reputation against a Banana Republic dictator, (who later was assassinated).
Since that time, Roberto Clemente’s untarnished reputation as a devoted family man and great athletic has grown. His name has even greater status today, in that Clemente played the game clean, without performance enhancement drugs. I loved the stage moment when actor Modesto Lacén, who played “The Great One,” pantomimed hitting a home run, his eyes following the soaring ball into the stratosphere. It reminded me of the exquisite, life-sized statue of Clemente, his face struck with awe, outside Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh – a beautiful tribute as is this musical.
1. Platero y Yo, by 1956 Nobel Prize winner, Juan Ramon Jimenez, in a bilingual adaptation, apt for adults as well as for kids, by Cornelia Cody, who also directed the staging that included audience interaction. A joyful production with actors who emoted with light-hearted abandon. We need more accessible folk classics like this one. That’s why I nominated it for Best Family Show. It was such a hit, the GALA Hispanic Theatre is bringing it back next spring for an encore.
The folk tale is about a magical friendship between a man and his burro (not a donkey) in a village in Andalusia. The dialogue expands into musings about the mystery of life and death, and our relationship and dependence on animals. When you realize the complex concepts, buried in this timeless modern folk classic, and the magical realism of a man and animal talking and understanding one another, it’s quite an impressive feat to pull off this production. The simple tale is much more profound than a Disney cartoon could ever get. By the way, Juan Ramon Jimenez has a building named for him at the University of Maryland.
2. The Adventures of Don Quixote of La Mancha by Patricia Suarez, is another bilingual adaptation by Cordelia Cody. The mysterious unconquerable spirit of lust for meaning through adventure and conquest is embodied in the character of Don Quixote. This enactment gave us a downsized version for a kid’s eye view of one of the great epic adventures of Western Literature.
This program staged at the Tivoli Theatre traditionally covers hot-button topics of protest and experimental theatre. It’s where theatrical risks are at their most cutting-edge.
Amarillo, an exciting, award-winning, multi-media piece, from Mexico’s Teatro Linea de Sombra, aspires to tell it as it is. As directed by the company’s artistic director, Jorge A. Vargas, it emerges from a deeply embedded tradition. For centuries, protest and political satire have long been considered safe in Latin American Theatre. It’s all illusion and make-believe, so why should a powerful central government, with absolute power, take a play seriously? Let the protest rumble.
A dynamic ensemble of actors and dancers act out how migrant workers, often family men, continue to cross from Mexico to reach Amarillo, Texas, and to die in the desert. A migrant worker, a character identified as “The Man,” is seeking the American Dream, a job, so his family can live a better life. Why is it that he never arrives? To answer the question, videos project a disturbing journey. On stage, The Man runs in circles, slams into the wall, reaches his arm up, falls back, jumps again until he dangles in suspended animation, always reaching, never arriving. Policies are lacking and have failed on both sides of “The Border,” that has become a symbol, for deep confusion over immigration laws.
Teatro de la Luna:
Here are my favorites from the 15th International Festival of Hispanic Theater, from October to November 2012. Headlined as A Full Moon of Theater/Una Luna Llena de Teatro, the Dominican Republic, Spain, Venezuela, United States, Ecuador, and two from Argentina were in the spotlight. Shining orbs (I can’t resist extending the full moon metaphor) of vastly different works, set within local contexts.
To start, here’s some breaking news. Fragrances from the Past/Agüita de Viejas, written and directed by Maria Beatriz Vergara, that never made it onstage last year, will be first in the line-up in this year. Ecuador’s entry last October was upstaged by Hurricane Sandy. According to producer Nucky Walder, “Everything was scheduled.” Then Sandy made a dramatic entrance and all travel was shut down by the super-storm. And the Zero No Zero Teatro never arrived. So the same show has been rescheduled as the headliner for this season’s International Festival, starting mid-October on Wed., Oct. 16, 2013, at the Ecuadoran Embassy.
As for the rest of last year’s festival, the mix proved as wildly diverse and distinctive as in past years.
1. Argentina: Jesus Christ (Jesucristo), by Mariano Moro, represented Argentina. Thanks to Moro’s poetic outpouring in the carefully crafted script, and Mariano Mazzei’s deeply thought-out, nuanced performance against a pitch-black space, the character of Jesus transforms from a down-to-earth, common man into an other-worldly Christ. Jesus, as played by the charismatic Mazzei, was a high point of the 15th International Festival for me. This one-man tour-de-force performance in an existential, minimalist setting still illuminates my consciousness. No need for more than actor Mazzei’s well-paced acting, and Moro’s scholarly script, based on the Bible. All that’s needed for a thought-provoking, spiritually-satisfying evening of theater. Mazzei made you believe, without resorting to any specific religion, that the spirituality of Jesus is alive in us all. That’s why I nominated Mazzei for a Best Actor award.
2. The Dominican Republic: Loosely based on William Shakespeare’s plot and characters, Othello…Sniff/Otello….Sniff, was a needling political satire that probed the depths of evil, written by adaptors Viena González and Claudio Rivera. A dare-devilishly good actor, Claudio Rivera, dressed like a clown, played multiple roles by switching masks and changing voices. As he shape-shifted through a host of Shakespeare’s characters, (ranging from Iago, and Othello to Desdemona), he exposed Dominican life as a descent into hell, as lived under a corrupt dictator. Most likely, the dictator was Rafael Trujillo, who like Othello, described in the play, trumped up national emergencies to rally his people under his power, as the Savior of the island.
Urged by the play’s reference to the Parsley Massacre, I did some individual research that disclosed that in 1937, 30,000 people were reported murdered in a genocidal, border dispute between the Haitians and Dominicans, and that Trujillo’s 30-year rule is now recognized as one of the most brutal, bloodiest in Latin American history. Overall, this play was an eye-opener, a rambling diatribe that left me with a lot of unanswered questions.
3. From Spain came Letters From the Swallows/Cartas de las Golondrinas, written and directed by Blanca del Barrio, with Noelia Fernández & Esther Aja. Emigrants, like migratory swallows, move away from their native birthplace, but carry instinctive longings for their homeland. Spanish playwright Blanca del Barrio, who has studied with Marcel Marceau, combined a mix of mime and music with balletic dance sequences and visual media, to bring to life a random collection of letters, dating from 1911 to 1939. This beautifully surreal, poetic piece was filled with deep personal experiences that become an imaginatively staged, surprisingly fresh, thank-you to the world.
The set design (by Juan I. Goitia) was ingenious, made up of a platform contraption, that was easily taken apart and put together, like a puzzle. A collapsible frame served as a last supper table, a pier with gangplank, and immigration office countertop windows. Furthermore, the window frames were used as percussion, slapped open and shut for expressions of frustration and rage.
Also memorable was a moving tribute to the individual heroism of the poet Pablo Neruda, who arranged for asylum for refugees from Franco’s dictatorship in Spain near the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. The steamship, the Winnipeg, a cargo ship, that usually carried no more than 70 people, was rigged out to transport over 2,000. Although many people today know his poetry, Neruda’s heroic good deed as a courageous humanitarian, is largely unknown.
4. From Venezuela, emerged a terrifying, grotesque comedy, Killing Words/Palabras Encadenadas, by Jordi Galceran, a deeply disturbing play that scrutinizes addictive behavior and killing without remorse. As directed by Elba Escobar, Killing Words puts us through a lot of mental gymnastics. I felt lured into an existentialist world, reminiscent of Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment or French novelist/playwright Albert Camus’ The Stranger, whose protagonist irrationally kills and confesses to feeling no personal responsibility for his actions. Ramon holds his ex-wife bound-and-gagged in a basement. We never know exactly what this psychopath intends to do with her, other than play a word game, called “Killing Words.” She either wins or dies. Escape appears to be pointless. There’s no place to go. True to the Greek rules for drama, the audience is removed from any violence, that is kept off stage. Overall, I liked the edgy suspense and unresolved ending
5. Argentina’s second entry. First Time Mother/Madre Primeriza, written, directed and enacted by Mariel Rosciano, was a charming contrast. It was an experimental, brave piece about the delicate balance between altruism and reality. The free-associative monologue was a play about the experience of learning a new role— that of motherhood. It was about natural childbirth, about doing what’s best for the baby. It confronted the problems career women face in trying to balance it all when they become mothers. It touched on something universal. It was about creation and pain.
6. The U.S.A. entry, was a delightful interactive piece for children and the child within the adult. Yo la Llamo Rusita Rojas/I Call Her Rusita Rojas/I Call Her Red Riding Hood, based on the folk tale by Charles Perrault, a bilingual adaptation by Cristina Ferrari, of the classic children’s tale, at the Rosslyn Spectrum. Performers directed by Neher Jacqueline Briceño, from Miami, Florida.
The best of Teatro de la Luna’s regular productions that had a longer run:
Gentlemen’s Club (Love Torn)/Club de Caballeros (Rotos de Amor), was a delightful theatre-of-the-grotesque satire, with four memorable comic male roles. Argentine playwright Rafael Bruza shows us how love drives men silly. The Gentlemen’s Club becomes a halfway house for curing broken hearted men. and makes us laugh at how the modern world’s Women’s Movement has totally toppled the traditions of dashing cavaliers, serenading troubadours and the Latino Lover as a leading man. When one of the characters asks: “Is there anything more ridiculous than a man in love?” I remembered back to Agustín Moreto’s In Spite of Love at the GALA. Men flock together in self-defense against the power of women. For me, this modern play proved there seems to be some cross-pollination between the centuries.
One smaller, enterprising company, the Teatro Lirico, on last year’s theatre scene deserves a mention for their all-out commitment that creates opportunities and makes a difference for young singers. The zarzuela La Dolorosa (The Woman of Sorrows), by Jose Serrano, was staged by director Marco A. Campos, at the Church of the Holy City, in Washington D.C. It featured baritone José Sacin, and tenor Alvaro Rodriguez in a tight, little operatic work, that dramatized the conflict between spirituality vs. earthly love. It proved to be a recital of one beautiful piece of music after another.
As I think back chronologically to the start of the season, I feel a sense of thrilling fulfillment and look forward to a full season ahead.