There are theatrical moments when the impossible becomes possible, when ensemble harmony and a richly-layered, challenging play are beautifully realized. So it is with GALA’s richly-layered, exquisite The Young Lady From Tacna by Peru’s Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.
Why did the enchanting young lady, Elvira (Luz Nicolás), like a runaway bride, burn her wedding dress the day before the ceremony, jilt her bridegroom, and renounce marriage? Her family never comes up with a satisfactory answer; and Elvira, nicknamed Mamaé by her doting nieces and nephews, takes her secret to the grave. So, playwright Vargas Llosa hypothesizes, as he states in the program, this is why and how stories are created– to fill in the gaps.
Director José Carrasquillo, with great attention to orchestrated movement, makes Llosa’s play work like a Bach fugue. Other critics have labeled Llosa’s style as hyper-realism, for its mix of time and place, a special brand of magical realism. Without scene divisions, conversations from different time periods go on simultaneously, like musical counterpoint, interconnecting generations, present and past.
An evocative, symbolic set by Giorgos Tsappas reinforces the concept, and highlights two stage areas to jump between two time zones, 1980 and 1950. Belisario’s study, replete with portable desktop typewriter, that could be anywhere in the world in the 1980’s, is tucked in a corner stage right. The rest of the open stage is Belisario’s grandparents’ house, in Lima, Peru, circa 1950s, and any time in Peruvian history that arouses memories of the War of the Pacific (1879-1884), that wiped out Peru’s economy. A horizontally raked platform rises to a stage left apex where Mamaé’s (Luz Nicolás) rocking chair sits throne-like in an elevated position for the 100-year-old mother figure’s place in the family.
Beyond this framed set, the upstage backdrop is ghostly, overpowered by a towering forest of diagonal, free-standing tree trunks, eerily-lighted throughout the play, in varying shades of blood-red, yellows, or stark white, reflecting the characters’ moods. (lighting design by Cory Ryan Frank).
Let’s talk first about the uniformly inspired cast. Actor Carlos Castillo gives a bravura performance, as does Luz Nicolás, whose versatility for playing multiple roles stood out in Cabaret Barroco, GALA’s headliner of the 2013/2014 season. Castillo, whose flamboyant self-possession is engaging, even spellbinding, plays the fictional Belisario, the stand-in for Vargas Llosa, who is struggling to write the greatest love story ever told, inspired by his childhood memories of a maiden cousin. In the play, the house and family is dominated by Mamaé, wrapped in a shawl, curled up in her rocking chair like a baby, after peeing on the floor. To write a romantic story about this spinster, Belisario is discovering he must reinvent himself as a liar, another definition for “storyteller.”
Belisario cannot tell this story straight forwardly. Characters, like Mamaé, keep interrupting to show him how wrong he is and what really happened. “Are you going to write a love story, a romance, or what?” Belisario storms at himself, as he wads up paper and tears his hair. Since there are no objective facts or secure anchors, Belisario makes a pact and prods his characters throughout the play to take over and tell the truth.
Thereafter, the play follows a strange, random order and direction of memory. Belisario again addressing himself, and us, says: “A writer is someone who writes, not what he wants -that’s what the normal person does – but what his demons want him to.” And we in the audience witness unpredictable suspense. Belesario instead of writing a meaningless romance to please himself, grows and changes into a writer who writes something universally profound about a quest for significance and our need for storytellers.
Since there are no formal scene divisions, we jump from 1980 back to 1950, as different voices are heard from parallel time periods. In Act I, Nicolás transforms herself physically, without the aid of a costume, from Mamaé, a dotty, little old lady into an endearing, child-like, lively teenager, Elvira, in the 1950s, who is madly in love with a dashing, Chilean officer, Joaquín (Victor Maldonado). The lovers dart back and forth through choreography that conveys two people hungry to touch each other but inhibited by morality. Both appear eager for the ceremony to break the barriers. But something darkly unreasonable and cruel happens that causes Elvira to set her wedding dress aflame, and leave Tacna to live with her cousin Carmen, (Marian Licha) and husband, Pedro (Hugo Medrano). Thereafter, like a miner, Belisario must dislodge Mamaés secret.
Luz Nicolás delivers a luminous performance, transcendent at moments, allegorical and illuminating. Without changing costume, the actress projects aging through her amazing physicality. Her Elvira is the essence of purity, slender and young, who holds herself erect and proud. When Nicolás, as light-footed as a bird, transforms into a heavy-footed old woman, who recoils in her rocker and screeches like an owl with a shawl like a shroud over her head, we feel her power. We understand her impassioned influence that ignites the storytelling flame in Belisario, who becomes a writer and a poet instead of a lawyer.
So why did Elvira choose to become a spinster, dependent on her relatives? Even though her cousins fondly nickname her Mamaé for Mama Elvira, a nanny and caregiver, she could have become an independent, respectable married woman with children. By refusing to marry, Mamaé allegorically embodies and preserves the Old World ideals. She is either a virgin before marriage or an outcast, a whore. As the maternal caregiver for her cousin’s children, Mamaé holds the family together throughout its economic decline. She represents: the virgin locked up behind the iron gate, imprisoned by the puritanical Hispanic code, what it means to be a señorita from Tacna, a title which conveys a special nobility and respect as for a lady of higher class.
The surprise, however, is how Carrasquillo directs Nicolás and all his players with a light hand to emphasize the humor, rather than the heartbreak of the work. All the performers are riveting and at peak moments– funny. Hugo Medrano as Abuelo Pedro projects a whimsical sense of well-mannered serenity in senility, in his perfectly timed exchanges with Marian Licha, who is solidly alert as Abuela Carmen. “You don’t care if there is an afterlife or not?” she asks. “Perhaps with age I’ve lost my curiosity.” Everything is “delicious” to Pedro who fortunately no longer remembers the pain of past mistakes and barbaric behavior. Tim Pabon as Agustín and Oscar Ceville as Cesar, contribute warm moments as family members as well.
Andrea Aranguren double plays Amelia, Belisario’s mother, and with serpentine composure is quietly effective as Carlota. The latter character represents Llosa’s larger-than-life cruel and ruthless female, lurking beneath the polish of civilized politeness. Savagery and brutality underneath the veneer of Western Hispanic culture are themes often found in Vargas Llosa’s prolific literary output. Similar time frame jumps occur in his novels, filled with geo-political reach, part of the reason he won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. I’ve started reading several and have become a fan.
THE YOUNG LADY FROM TACNA
Closes March 9, 2014
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20010
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $38 – $42
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
An important, unexplained reference is made to Federico Barreto (1862-1929) near the end of the play. Barreto was a famous, local Peruvian poet from Tacna who wrote sensual love poetry. He also protested against the Chilean occupation of Tacna and the Chilenización of Peru. Although the poet as a character never appears on stage, his presence is felt. Barreto wrote the poem, glorifying Elvira’s beauty, as an ideal, a “goddess,” on Mamaé’s mysterious mother-of-pearl fan.
GALA’s The Young Lady from Tacna is over the top arts entertainment, worth experiencing. It’s terrifyingly human, and cynically funny, but ultimately profound. Inspiration was inhaled from Vargas Llosa’s text to create this incredibly beautiful production.
The Young Lady From Tacna (La Señorita de Tacna) by playwright Mario Vargas Llosa . Directed by José Carrasquillo . Featuring Carlos Castillo, Luz Nicolas, Hugo Medrano, Marian Licha, Karen Morales, Tim Pabon, Andrea Aranguren and Victor Maldonado . Scenic design: Giorgos Tsappas . Lighting design: Cory Ryan Frank . Costumes: Ivania Stack . Sound design: Brendon Vierra . Properties design: Marie Schneggenburger . Technical Director: Andrés Luque . Stage Manager: Cecilia Cackley . Production Manager: Anna Bate . Produced by Abel López for GALA Hispanic Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.