The following plays are my favorite selections best Hispanic productions of 2016, all seen at GALA Hispanic Theatre, and dominated by GALA productions themselves.
GALA Hispanic Theatre made an historic impact on Washington DC theatre in 2015 when it received six Helen Hayes Awards at the 2016 ceremony: (1) for Outstanding Director of a Play-HELEN Production: José Luis Arellano, Yerma; (2) Outstanding Lighting Design-HELEN Production- Christopher Annas Lee, Yerma; (3) Outstanding Set Design-HELEN Production: Silvia de Marta, Yerma; (4) Outstanding Sound Design-HELEN Production- Mariano Marin, Yerma; (5) Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play-HELEN Production: Mabel del Pozo, Yerma; (6) Outstanding Play-HELEN Production: Yerma.
It was the first time (since 1983) that a Spanish play subtitled in English, won six top awards, thanks to Yerma stage director José Luis Arellano Garcia, from Spain, who directed the stage adaptation by Fernando J. López of Garcia Lorca’s Yerma. These awards would be remarkable in any language. It set a bar that would be a tall reach for any theatre company. How would GALA top that in 2016?
For GALA Hispanic Theatre company it wasn’t a hard reach. They simply continued their commitment to high standards of excellence, as evidenced by these plays in 2016.
Cervantes: The Last Quixote is written by Jordi Casanovas, and directed by the award-winning director José Luis Arellano García. Casanovas was commissioned to write Cervantes for the GALA Hispanic Theatre in Washington DC. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, was the author of The Ingenious Knight (or Gentleman) Don Quixote of La Mancha/El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, and the creator of the character Don Quixote in 1605 and 1615. Cervantes, who lived from 1547 to 1616, became celebrated as the great Spanish writer, regarded today as the greatest in the Spanish language.
There is a magnificent moment in Cervantes: the Last Quijote, actually its climax and last moment in the play: The Spanish King falsely believes that Cervantes has stolen from the tax funds he has been collecting. So Cervantes has been imprisoned. This punishment, ironically, gives the genius the isolation he needs to complete his great masterpiece, Don Quixote de la Mancha, Part II. Director José Luis Arellano García skillfully stages this moment: Oscar de la Fuente, playing Cervantes, dons a tin helmet, and becomes Don Quixote. Cervantes jumps on the back of Martin (Samy Khalil), who becomes Quixote’s steed, Rocinante. As Don Quixote and Rocinante ride off together across the stage into the wings, Cervantes’ fictionally imagined world becomes reality.
It makes for a brilliant climactic ending for the play about Cervantes, the genius inventor of the universally celebrated character Don Quixote.
According to Associate Producing Director, Abel Lopez, one of the reasons GALA’s production of Cervantes: El Ultimo Quixote/Cervantes:The Last Quixote proved to be a top box office draw this season was because people who missed Yerma wanted to see another production directed by multiple Helen Hayes award recipient Arellano Garcia.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold/Crónica de una muerte anunciada, adaptation by Jorge Alí Triana from the novella of the same name by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. It was directed by José Zayas.
When asked what was the GALA Hispanic Theatre’s top box office draw, Abel Lopez, Associate Producing Director at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, said, without taking a breath, “Chronicle of a Death Foretold did really well at the box office. It was our highest grossing play in this past 2016 season. Actually, Chronicle has proven to be the highest grossing play financially in our history of performance.”
And now, looking to future productions. Any adaptation of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, becomes a top box office draw. GALA’s success gave them the incentive to continue to do works by famous Spanish authors, adapted to the stage. Another example in the recent past of “magical realism,” which Márquez is known for, was the GALA’s staging of his The Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother in 2011. It, too, was a big box office smash hit. “So it’s not unusual for native speakers who have immigrated to this country” to feel united by a stage adaptation of a masterpiece by [Gabriel Garcia Márquez’} known for his novels and short stories, and his use of “magical realism,” according to Lopez.
Lopez explained the success of their ongoing season this way: Because of Márquez’ Nobel Prize, audiences want to see his work in any form. According to Lopez, Márquez is an icon of Spanish culture and unity. Chronicle of a Death Foretold/Crónica de una muerte anunciada, written in 1981, was based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novella of the same name, written the year before the prize was awarded. The mystery story is not based on the question of who committed the murder but, more pointedly, “Why didn’t one individual person from the village stop the brutal murder from taking place?”
In a memorable scene that took my breath away, director Zayas uses the ensemble to simulate a Greek chorus. Actors hover on the rim of the arena set, vocalizing eerie sounds. At a high point, that is terrifying, after the two characters Pablo and Pedro Vicario, the twin brothers, have announced that at 5:30 in the morning, they are going to kill Santiago Nasar, their arms flex as they grip butcher knives, used for slaughtering animals. The twin brothers sharpen their knives on a fence post and hunch their bodies like two bulls ready to charge.
“But here is what’s strange, a moment that builds the suspense and commands attention: The shop keeper of the milk store, delivers this aside: “They are not eager to carry out the sentence: what they want is to find someone who will do them the favor of stopping them…” The dynamics are shifted. The brothers are facing no immediate threat. The Vicario brothers’ motive for revenge remains mysterious. The chorus chants: “You will die without understanding why.” From the context of the dialogue, we get the idea that this slaughter, this act of violent murder, is a murder based on hearsay. Justice does not exist. The answer to who really deflowered their sister Angela is left unresolved. The evil here is not that a virginal woman was raped, which is unproven, but that the crime even happened. The actual crime is the crowd’s willingness to conform, and go along with believing the accusations, true or false. The play becomes about raw violence, and vigilante justice.
This chilling, memorable stage moment that can only be experienced in contrast to the beautiful wedding night scene, choreographed as a modern dance routine by Katie Bücher and danced by Inés Domínguez del Corral and Erick Sotomayor.
El Paso Azul/El Paso Blue by playwright Octavio Solis, directed by José Carrasquillo with a stunning, surreal set design by Regina García and lighting by Christopher Annas-Lee. Written in English with recorded Rockabilly music by Michael “Hawkeye” Herman and pop-country music, fused with the Mexican-Spanish vocal tradition of Tejano (a fusion of Czech/German dance tunes and rhythms.). The play is based on the Greek oedipal father-son myth.
Solis’ play addresses an ancient Greek theme, the Oedipal father-son relationship, that is universal in literature. The play about the search for identity, is modernized and reset at the Mexican/American border: The play asks the questions: Who are you? Does where you live define who you are? Where do you live? Do you speak Spanish? To which side of the Mexican-United States border do you belong? El Paso Azul breaks down surface reality to the subconscious, supernatural level, that is universal.
According to Abel Lopez, this production did not do as well at the box office because it was performed in English. According to Lopez, bilingual plays are a sign of their assimilation. Bilingual plays represent the loss of identity as a culture. “Sixty to seventy percent of our audiences speak Spanish. They want to see plays performed in Spanish because it’s an expression of their cultural roots. But we think it’s important to perform in English so we take the risk,” Lopez said.
Even though El Paso Blue wasn’t an audience favorite, I enjoyed its classical reference to Greek myth, its depth of vision, and warped, cynical humor. The stage sets by Regina Garcia were wonderfully wild and aptly surreal.
Senorita y Madame/Miss and Madame by Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott, directed by Consuelo Trum, produced at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, in February 2016. A play about the ironies of power. The moment when Helena Rubenstein, played by Ana Verónica Muñoz, discovers that identity is more than skin deep hits like a powerful force. Raised to believe that “women rule through love…and beauty makes us powerful,” Rubenstein is forced to confront reality when the Nazi Germans invade Poland. Ultimately, Rubenstein survives to confront a horrifying reality. Her home town of Krakow becomes the location for two of the most horrific Jewish extermination camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau. Rubenstein, who has dedicated her life to making women beautiful is forced to confront her deep identity and Jewish heritage. She realizes she has built a myth of wealth and power that isn’t real. She has never acknowledged her Jewish heritage.
It’s a fine line between what you detest, loathe, hate with your entire being, and what you admire. Two beauty industry giants, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden started as peasants or farm girls with nothing and became powerful myths. They become feminists without ever using the word. They just competed for market share, sales, wealth and security. In Ott’s exploration of these two superhuman feminists, two powerhouse personalities emerge. Allegedly they became industrial giants without ever meeting in real life. But Arden succeeded in changing the public bias that beauty products, creams and make up are reserved for prostitutes. She made beauty products respectable through marketing. What I liked in Ott’s vision was how competition inspires creativity and progress.
GALA’s productions for young audiences:
Volcanoes: Folk Tales from El Salvador/Volcanes: Cuentes de El Salvador, a musical by Cornelia Cody, directed by Gustano Ott. A fun-filled, family musical based on a ghost story, to encourage bilingual education and family togetherness through audience participation. The magical dogs called Cadejos sleep inside the volcanoes, Chaparrastique and Tecapa, famous landmarks. The Cadejos protect traveling Salvadorans at home or abroad when they emigrate. That’s the belief.
Volcanoes: Folk tales from El Salvador are like Grimm’s fairy tales to prevent children from wandering alone in the dark at night. This dramatic piece of short children’s tales moved me emotionally, because of its universal call for families to re-unify. I lived and worked in El Salvador for one summer (in 2010) and fell in love with the country and people. The native Salvadorans believe that Cadejos live inside the volcanoes, Chaparrastique and Tecapa, famous landmarks that are active. I was aware of the volcanoes but did not know the cautionary folk tales associated with them.
Ironically, the volcano Chaparrastique blew its top on December 29, 2013. It has been renamed the San Miguel volcano by this generation of Salvadorans. Life continues to imitate art. Eruptions were reported on June 13, 2016. I liked the imaginative staging, and the use of a gossamer red fabric thrown out into the audience like lava to represent the volcano erupting.
For me it raised the question that still lingers: Do people have to suffer through a big natural disaster to unite in peace, celebrate life and share universal folk stories, like the ones about the cadejos?
El Mundo es un pañuelo/The World Is a Handkerchief, by Chilean playwright Jorge Diaz, with bilingual adaptation by Victoria R. Golden and Hugo Medrano, who also directed.
Titiloco, a circus clown, bored with the circus, travels the world and discovers adventure and excitement in diversity. What’s the significance of the title? Fold a napkin in half; then in quarters, then on the diagonal. Then wad up the napkin into a ball. It’s a small world that is constantly changing, and it can take many forms. One interpretation? We are all connected like the four corners of a handkerchief, like its woven linen threads.
I enjoyed this dramatic, imaginative play and used its concepts with resounding success in teaching English classes in Montgomery County Public Schools.
GALA Hispanic Theatre was also host to one of the best productions of the year.
Goyescas by Enrique Granados, adapted for In Series staging by Elizabeth Pringle, choreographed by Jaime Coronado; musically directed and performed by a consummate virtuoso, pianist Carlos César Rodríguez. The In Series Opera Company commemorates the centennial of composers Enrique Granados and Manuel De Falla, known for their popular folk songs that celebrated and stirred up Spanish nationalism.
Inspired by the majos and majas, that fueled the majismo movement from the paintings of the great Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya, Goyescas explores the drama of romantic betrayals, conflict between the European upper and lower classes, and memories of a relatively unknown composer, Granados, who popularized a Spanish style of rhythm and melody, translated and conveyed through folk dance and flamenco.
Teatro de la Luna
Finally, the question must be asked – whatever happened to Teatro de la Luna? The Hispanic theatre company that imported an annual Hispanic Theatre festival of Latin American plays from South America. The Teatro de la Luna staff, Nucky Walder, Mario Marcel and Marcela Ferlito are alive and well and thriving by presenting marimba and dance concerts, as well as providing acting workshops and theater classes for children. Marcela Felito, who teaches classes at Teatro de la Luna, said that the Teatro de la Luna now also sponsors Bolero concerts. Last April, they produced a tango show and festivals for children at the Rosslyn Spectrum.