Hispanic theatre bonds me to my family heritage. I was born in Los Angeles, California, with Latino roots that date back to Spain through the American southwest. I grew up in a decade on the brink of the Civil Rights movement in America. It was a time when it wasn’t cool to be Spanish or Mexican or Latino. Rediscovering the Golden Age of Spanish Literature has connected me to my roots, united me with a wonderful, vibrant family of close relatives and distant cousins, as well as a layered tapestry of enriched cultural literature and art. The discovery has been a thrilling experience.
The year 2015 has been a stand-out year, a year of rare treasures on stage for Washington D.C.’s theatre scene and for Hispanic Theatre. Here are my choices for my top 10 favorite plays and musicals of the year, 2015. Finding it impossible to limit the list to 10, I’ve expanded it to my Top 12.
Produced by the Iberian Suite Festival, The Kennedy Center
A must-mention is the rich menu of Entremeses at the Iberian Suite Festival, imported from Spain, performed at The Terrace Theater in Kennedy Center. The Teatro De La Abadía, directed by José Luis Gómez, performed a collection of masterworks by Miguel de Cervantes (the author of Don Quixote, the novel): The Cave of Salamanca, The Jealous Old Man, and The Marvelous Show of Figures. Entremeses, or Interludes (comic spoofs squeezed between acts of the more serious epic plays from the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre. These were one-acts I had read about in my research but never dreamed of having the chance to actually see them. A real treat to see the actors’ rambunctious physicality , as if they stepped out of a time capsule from the rowdy streets of Spain in the 17th century.
11. Twelve Angry Men
Produced by American Century Theater
It would be criminal not to include Jack Marshall’s directing of Twelve Angry Men, by Reginald Rose, at The American Century Theater, the play about juries and justice, that represents TACT’s first, in 1995, and last production in 2015. I’m grateful that the Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive (WAPAVA) has preserved it for posterity by recording the last performance on August 8, 2015, for the James J. Taylor Collection at the University of Maryland’s Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library.
10. The Tender Land
Produced by The In Series
The In Series comes out with Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, a worthy but neglected masterpiece. The entire opera is an elongated meditative poem, as if based on an atonal 12-tone scale, reflective of the 20th century classical musical pioneer, Arnold Schoenberg.
It isn’t just the choral ensemble number, “The Promise of Living,” oft-performed-out-of-context in symphonic classical music concerts, that made this staging a favorite for me. It’s that two characters from this poignant, Depression-era opera capture the spirit of what it means to be American. Laurie (Soprano Melissa Chavez) sings with rebellious vibrancy her longing to break with her roots, get off the farm, cross horizons, and explore a greater world. She’s the All-American girl who wants to expand her horizons. She is contrasted with Martin, her polar opposite, (sung by tenor Nicholas Carratura). Martin is the all-American guy, who has traveled the world in all directions, and longs to establish roots and bring stability into his nomadic life. It’s the American paradox, the longing to break boundaries for adventure versus the striving for roots in a mobile society. The paradox is united under an apt title: The Tender Land, that suggests the tender love and conflict that develops between the lovers.
9. Inheritance Canyon
Produced by Taffety Punk
Liz Maestri, a thoroughly delightful sci-fi send-up of stuffy academia and over-reliance on scientific research. The one-act is a wild ride through a space-time event at Taffety Punk Theatre, that raises some poignant questions, such as: What happens when human beings are pushed to their limits? How can humans exist in a universe as cruel as ours?
Maestri takes on “the black hole paradox,” a big theme within a small setting. Recently Stephen Hawking backpedaled his opposition to Jacob Bekenstein, who died last summer and stood up for a revolutionary theory about dark matter sucked into the interior of a black hole. According to Bekenstein, the information does not evaporate forever, as Hawking postulated. It could be broken up and reassembled on the horizon, in a four-dimensional region and emerge in a parallel universe. Nothing is ever lost, just reorganized. It’s our immortality. Maestri’s Inheritance Canyon depicts three human beings as travelers who survive a black hole. And we are presented with a wildly imaginative space-time travel event.
8. Mariela in the Desert/Mariela en el Desierto
Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre
Mariela in the Desert/Mariela en el Desierto by Karen Zacarias, sensitively directed for the layered meanings, by Abel López. This play was an artistic turn-around for Karen Zacarias. When first produced, it was not well received by critics. So, Zacarias rewrote the play several times. Secondly, the luminous acting performance by versatile Luz Nicolás as the character Mariela, elevates the character of Mariela to a monumental earth mother, sympathetically capable of great sacrifice, as well as a woman artist. Even in a stark desert landscape, shifting truth can be kept concealed until it erupts like an earthquake and changes familial relationships permanently. In Mariela in the Desert playwright Zacarias reveals the true nature of an artistic Latino family, not often seen on stage, based on the playwright’s own family history. It’s a play that breaks down stereotypes, presenting us with memorable characters who are real human beings.
Survival guilt is a difficult theme to deal with. But playwright Zacarias handles it well in this play. Nicholás as Mariela speaks a line worth remembering: “We have to learn to live with what we do.” (Moral: Artists should never give up trying to expose the truth.) This is a play that makes clear the importance of surrealist Frida Kahlo and her lover/husband muralist Diego Rivera, who are historically important artists. Rivera painted the outer world, grotesque, often ugly, imagery, to satirize Mexican society. In contrast, Kahlo focused on expressing her inner vision, her troubled soul, often obscure, often misunderstood. Like Kahlo, Mariela is an icon of stoicism, a role model for surviving personal pain. I liked the way the play ended on what I called “a tonic chord, spiritually reassuring.”
7. Las Polacas, The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires
Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre
Las Polacas, The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires by Patricia Suárez-Cohen. with music and lyrics by Mariano Vales, adapted lyrics and text by Bari Biern. A wild gamble by the GALA artistic directors and producers that sailed over the top. To stage a musical exposing prostitution in 1920s Buenos Aires takes more than bravery. It takes grit and gumption — moxie. What sticks with me are the images of the Jewish girls tricked into emigrating to Argentina to work in brothels. The ones who survived transcended their sordid environment with spines of steel– plucky resilience. As survivors, they are role models. Sex slavery is not funny. Yet this GALA collaboration effectively unsettles our complacency, sets our toes tapping to the catchy, minor-keyed Eastern European music, and challenges us to continue righting the wrongs in the world. Scenes alternated between Spanish (with English surtitles) and English (with Spanish surtitles) maintained the clarity of meaning and nuance of character. A fine, entertaining addition to GALA Hispanic Theatre’s repertoire and reputation for opening to the light, the dark, hidden chapters in Argentine history.
6. Don Giovanni
Produced by The In Series
Don Giovanni by Amadeus Mozart, a glorious grand operas that has always intimidated me. So I welcomed The In Series’ impressive, awe-inspiring conversion from an aristocratic locale in 17th century Prague, to a small town religious tent revival in a small American town in 1924. Don Giovanni’s seductions of innocent peasant girls are successfully transmuted into an accessible, down-to-earth story about a sexy American preacher, who exploits his adoring female flock by tricking them with his “laying-on-of-hands” routine. Thanks to a talented creative team, headed by librettist Bari Biern, the conversion, word-play, and philosophical ponderings are convincing and delightfully entertaining. .
This production opened the door of opportunity for some gifted local opera singers, like Alex Alburqueque, gifted with impeccable comic timing, an expressive face and rich baritone, as well as bass-baritone Andrew Pardini, who sang the Giovanni role. Alburqueque is a stand-out, promising actor, capable of showing what he can do in projecting complex, two-faced characters, like Leparello, Giovanni’s sidekick. The In Series has created an accessible series comic opera, that is not a downgrade. It retains Mozart’s sublime music with an element of devilish humor from the original.
5. Much Ado About Nothing
Produced by Synetic Theater
Synetic’s 1950’s biker musical Much Ado About Nothing, achieved a convincing reincarnation of the Battle of the Sexes, by playing up the farcical elements in the war of wits, with physicality and stagecraft directed by Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili. This Much Ado time-traveled us from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan age to the 1950s’ biker era. A time-switch that worked, the adaptation translated the bombardment of witty combat, and the silliness of love, into a magical hallucination. Instead of Beatrice and Benedick as never heard before in a war of wits, it was Beatrice, (Irina Tsikurishvili) versus Benedick, (a cool Ben Cunis) as never seen before. Beatrice and Benedick slurped a soda fountain drink with straws together, shared a wild motorcycle ride and popcorn during a movie. All action reinforced by a frenetic 1950ish chorus line of jitterbugging, swing dancing and twisting. Who can forget the sequence when the bikers picked up their bikes and twirled them like batons?
The inventive substitution of public wall graffiti worked as a theatrical trick for eavesdropping or spoken “asides.” Eavesdropping by gossiping friends became helpful meddling that ultimately brought together the true lovers. I loved the fact that director Paata Tsikurishvili understood “notting,” the Elizabethan word for eavesdropping or spying, something not intended to be overheard. Shakespeare could have titled his comedy, “Much Ado About Eavesdropping;” not “nothing,” perhaps an historical spelling error.
Then there was the delightful whistling theme music, by music composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze, used for a hyperbolic take-off on a Three Stooges car chase sequence, led by police chief Dogberry, flamboyantly played by Vato Tsikurishvili. Once again, the Synetic company proved that mime, movement and music,are universal communicators.
4. House of Desires
Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre
The GALA Hispanic Theatre’s House of Desires/Los Empeños De Una Casa, written by the extraordinary Sor Juana Inéz De La Cruz, directed by artistic director, Hugo Medrano. Sor Juana was a woman genius and a nun, so gifted two Latino countries lay claim to her as a top-name artist in their history. That’s why this pioneering female playwright is classified as a Mexican and a Spanish Golden Age playwright, who lived in Mexico in the 17th century (1650-1694). There is a saying, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Sor Juana misbehaved, took enormous risks by defying the Inquisition, and almost got away with it. She satirized her stifling surroundings, expanded vocabulary with her witty word-play. She refused to conform, and achieved literary immortality. Mexican school children recite her memorized verses today. She is pictured on the 200 pesos bill printed by the Bank of Mexico.
Stage director Medrano also misbehaved by cleverly relocating Sor Juana’s play. His setting for Sor Juana’s exuberant Los Empeños De Una Casa/House of Desires takes place in the interior of a 1940’s Mexican hacienda. He directed his actors to emulate a sweeping, melodramatic cloak-and-dagger style, reminiscent of the “campy” ranchero-musical films (comedia ranchera) that dominated the Mexican cinema during their Golden Age of Cinema (1930 to mid-1950s). This satire aimed its arrows at “honor killings,” a nuance easily overlooked.
Panicked havoc ensued over the mistaken identities in the “groping-in-a-dark-room” scene, that we see on a fully-lighted stage. The confusion in the dark room was a cover-up, inspired by the terror of “honor killings,” (by a protective uncle or relative) based on the severe 17th century behavior code. (A woman must never be found alone in a room with a man.) To his credit, Medrano kept the mocking, exaggerated style consistent. The ultimate send-up, however, came from actor Carlos Castillo’s over-the-top cross-dressing, a side-splitting strip tease, which was an ironic reversal of a stage convention. In Shakespearean England, female characters dressed as men for security and protection in a lawless society. In Sor Juana’s House of Desires, a male character dresses as a woman for self-protection. Hilarious chaos follows. It was Sor Juana, a nun who dreamed up this riotous, rebellious romp in a farce that still seems relevant during our confrontation with Muslim society today.
3. Guys and Dolls
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Guys and Dolls by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, with its scintillating choreography by Michael Bobbitt and sound design by Jeffrey Dortman, under the loving hand of revered veteran director, Jerry Whiddon, is proving to be another blockbuster hit for Olney Theatre Center. [After 2 extensions, it’s scheduled to close January 10.]I thought Olney had reached their zenith in 2013 with A Chorus Line, but this gutsy theatre venue, sometimes still thought of as a “straw hat” venue in the sticks (by the city snobs), just keeps reaching for impossible dreams with dazzling, world-class, Broadway-quality staging.
Baritone/actor Matt Faucher delivered a memorable show-stopping “Luck Be A Lady” in his characterization, of the high-rolling gambler-with-a-heart, Sky Masterson, that out-shines Marlon Brandon in the movie. The attention to detail by scenic director Dan Conway thrust us squarely in the Big Apple. And I can still visualize the crap-shoots, and cross-stage knee-slides in “The Crapshooters Dance,” choreographed by Bobbitt. The performance by Tobias Young as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” rocked the rafters. As did the entire, inspired cast.
2. Man of La Mancha
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Man of La Mancha, based on Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century masterpiece, “Don Quixote,” gets an unqualified pick as one of my favorites in 2015. Four times I saw this Shakespeare Theatre Company’s musical staging, directed by Alan Paul. It wasn’t only Anthony Warlow’s incandescent, impassioned performance as an ethereal Don Quixote, and Amber Iman’s luminous turn as an earthy Aldonza at Harman Hall. Nor was it the oppressive reality of grandeur that transported us into the steel cage of the Spanish Inquisition. (approx. 1478-1834 AD). Each time I saw this production, and took friends, I saw deeper meanings. Warlow’s aesthetic, Christ-like interpretation, layered with flashes of altruism, glowed in the dark, because of his sensitive interpretation, expressed in the nuance of his baritone singing voice. My daughter, returning home from Doha, Qatar, after finishing her three-year contract as an airline pilot with Qatar Airways, enjoyed Man of La Mancha as my homecoming gift, in May 2015, during the extended run.
I believe it was the theme of the “impossible dream,” that captivated her (and me). Performances from Nehal Joshi as the Don’s sidekick Sancho, and Amber Iman’s Aldonza, justified our reverential devotion. My daughter had come home after living an impossible dream. As a woman, she was allowed to satisfy her wanderlust; to fly the world as a well-trained female airline pilot. Isn’t that what theater is supposed to do? Portray our wildest dreams and help us understand what inspires us to realize more in real life? To keep us reaching for that impossible dream beyond our expectations? Man of La Mancha distilled the experience.
Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre
By far, the GALA Hispanic Theatre’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma, adapted by Fernando J. López and directed by José Luis Arellano from Spain, rises to the top of my list.. I’ve always loved Lorca’s profound, poetic language; but Arellano added shock volts with stunning visual-and-auditory effects– another dimension– on a minimalist set. All effects denote barrenness. (Yerma in Spanish means “barren.”) I am still haunted by the harsh clank of silver spoons against china bowls, that represented a living-death, what life meant for Yerma, (played by the incomparable Mabel del Pozo from Spain). Memory of that repetitive percussive sound chills me still, just as it followed us into intermission on opening night.
We witness her trapped in an arranged, childless, loveless marriage. Juan (Eric Robledo), the sterile husband, dressed in farm work clothes, stands next to his two towering sisters, shrouded-in-black-hooded, floor-length robes, and rules over a planked table and Yerma’s life. Yerma’s head is bowed, as if submitting to brutal repression. She’s in a living hell, dominated by the puritanical sisters. The clanking sound creates an allegorical, larger-than-life moment, and elevates the drama out of domestic soap-opera, into a gargantuan image of universal agony.
Arellano reinforces patterns of barrenness throughout this unique staging. The other man in Yerma’s life, Victor, the shepherd, who exudes lusty, blood-filled vitality, emits weird, stifled, throaty utterances, like sounds from another world. He scrambles naked like a wild bull across the stage in another scene. All contribute to one effect: the characters are beyond human. They represent primitive, universal forces. Everything works organically to capture the brutality of existence. Yerma has to rebel and break out, our instincts tell us. No healthy young woman eager for a house filled with children’s voices (faint childlike voices are heard through the sound system) can live in this hell. Instinctive life must prevail. Even Yerma’s love making with Juan is dehumanized, accompanied by dissonant sound. Arellano’s inspired directing depicts a harsher side of life that rings true. This is why this production surges to the top of my top picks list.