At the lowest abyss of this emotional roller-coaster ride, there is a terrifying life-changing revelation. Yet the staging of this beautiful one-act monologue, written for Uruguayan actress, Nidia Telles, by playwright Julio César Castro, starts out innocently in a safety zone.
An ornate, Victorian armoire stands ominously center stage, like a guarded secret. The life-sized mirror on its door casts an eerie reflection on a beige carpet. The staging is simple, even stark. Piped-in bandoneon tango music adds an edgy, soul-wrenching dimension.
Teatro de la Luna’s 17th International Festival of Hispanic Theatre takes us to Uruguay. In past festivals, Uruguay has sent the cabaret artist Petru Valinsky, the stand-up comedian who gave us rioplatense satire, from Montevideo. In contrast, Nidia Telles is a winner of best actress awards worldwide for her roles, ranging from Shakespeare, Chekhov to Shaw. In Gracias por Todo/Thanks For Everything, Telles spills out a bizarre survival story of ups and downs, engaging us in a deep, cathartic journey.
When the lights come up, Nidia Telles, who plays the “woman,” with total body and soul connection, immediately breaks the fourth wall and engages our attention. “May God forgive me, but I just can’t keep going,” she cries, her expressive face anguished as she rubs her temples.
Occasionally the “woman” pauses and hums or sings with the bandoneon coming in overhead. Although her voice is melodious and sweet, she speaks from her gut. “This mirror makes me deformed,” she says, addressing the mirror and shielding her face in denial, turning her back on it. Later, the mirror becomes “Mr. Mirror,” a symbol for confronting the past.
Telles is brilliant as the self-torturing “woman” is searching for perfection and Truth within herself, however painful that may be. What the “woman” says is disturbing– mostly contradictory, but Telles isn’t just a great dramatic actress, her expressive phrasing and needle-sharp timing makes us laugh. For example: On the “woman’s” wedding night, her husband is driving while fondling her. When she tells him, “Get your hand off,” he takes his hand off the wheel and almost crashes the car. The actresses’ pauses are just right to get a big laugh.
The way the “woman” tells her story, everything that happened to her doesn’t make sense. Her first night honeymoon experience with her husband, Roberto, a medical doctor, is hysterical. Ultimately, she tells us that Roberto’s greatest achievement was to become “Mr. Nobody,” Wrong-headedly, he advised her to throw things away– “everything you don’t use.” She opens the door of the armoire and takes out a soft, rimless cap, that she throws on the floor, talks to, and calls a “Gardel hat.” Then she confesses that “Carlos Gardel never used a hat.” (Composer, songwriter, actor Gardel became the baritone “King of Tango,” Argentina and Uruguay deified him as a tragic hero after his death in 1935.) Everything is absurd until she goes into psychoanalysis and starts digging into herself with Dr. Soltanovich. She goes for four years until her doctor raises his prices. Telles stretches out her arms straight into a cross-like position, as if she is crucified, as the “woman” talks about what it’s like on the shrink’s couch. Ultimately, she decides: “I’m not going to therapy anymore, I’m fine..” Remember that phrase. It becomes a repeated refrain after an experience with a church. At a peak spiritual moment led by her pastor, the tells us, “there was no truth there…..”I’m fine…I’m no longer going there,” and doesn’t go back.
But shocking revelations do come. As a 12-year-old young girl, the “woman” has a memory about her father, the kind that could shatter the life of a young person forever. She takes two of her mother’s letters to her dad to show him the stamps. He reads the letters. Then she says simply: “After dad shot himself,” and we can only imagine what was in the letters. But strong human being that the “woman” is, she keeps going.
Ultimately, this play is about self-acceptance, not bottling up memories, not throwing away significant things including people. “You have to see how to carry everything in life,” she tells us, including survival guilt, as she concludes her verbal aria thanking her wardrobe mirror, whom she addresses as “Mr. Mirror,” and members of her family, for giving her back her past life.
As the “woman” talks to herself in the mirror, she works through her past, drawing us into her quest. What’s the meaning of a life? The discovery is herself. In her last insights on self-realization, she accepts herself in a quiet moment of ecstatic triumph.
Telles gives a bravura performance. She is a lesson in acting. She isn’t acting. She just is. Her performance is one hour but the memory of it will last forever. She’s that good, well-deserving of the standing ovation she received at the end.
Gracias por Todo/Thanks For Everything by Julio César Castro, Starring Nidia Telles, Directed by Carlos Aguilera, Produced by Compañía Nidia Telles for Teatro de la Luna’s XVII International Festival of Hispanic Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.
Gracias Por Todo has closed. Next weekend from Ecuador, the comedy Loca la Juana (That Crazy Joan), Oct 24 – 26, 2014. Gunston Arts Center, Theater 2, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA.
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