Actor Adrián Iglesias, who plays Séneca, the mouse who has lived in a library for the past ten years, ambles on stage, carrying a wicker basket, filled with large books and eating utensils. Iglesias wears large oversized glasses, identifying him as an intellectual. We sense something is weird or a little wonky.
Séneca, whose head is decked with two tiny mouse ears, looks both right and left to make sure he is alone, and then spreads a red-and-white tablecloth for a picnic. This may be a bucolic setting typical of romances in the 16th century, but there’s something creepy, crawly about the lizards painted on stairwell posts and the tree trunk. Add to the mix: a park bench with overflowing trash cans and dirty papers.
In a slow-paced, lazy monologue, Séneca introduces himself as the Library Mouse who brings books to a picnic. He tells us it’s been 10 years since he left his house and that he doesn’t have knowledge of the exterior world. He complains that is hard to find a quiet spot in this modern world . “…there are children, trash and lizards everywhere.” His world has been books that he found on the shelf of the library in the convent that is near the chapel. He sits on the picnic tablecloth and takes books out of the wicker basket and spreads them out like honored guests.
That’s when we discover that the books are not for reading; they are for eating! He devours the classics by eating their pages. (The kids from two local elementary schools in the audience react with disgust or groans of surprise.) Today it’s Don Quijote that is delicious. And the mouse eats the paper. (large groan); then tells us he washes down his meal with a glass of ink. But it’s a peculiar kind of ink, in that it has no color. “It’s bright crystal clear…..”
So opens the play by the same playwright, Chilean Jorge Díaz, who wrote The World is a Handkerchief/El Mundo Es Un Pañuelo, staged last March 2016 by GAlita. A play that dramatized a similar theme: Diversity in the world can be a joy; not something to be condemned and persecuted. Here the play Séneca: Ratón de Biblioteca is a variation on the same theme. Séneca has to learn to tell the difference between fiction and reality. What’s real? What’s illusion and what’s reality? What’s fact and what’s fiction? It’s okay to be different. And it’s extremely important to distinguish what’s a real threat. Misunderstandings lead to endless conflict and can escalate into war.
The rest of the play is devoted to supporting that message.
Actor Iglesias/Séneca takes his guitar from its stand and begins to sing, alternating songs and dances throughout this delightful dramatic piece. Meanwhile upstage, three mice RA, RA, and RA, for Ramon (Pablo Guillén), Rafael (Karent Hinestroza) and Raúl (Karen Morales) pop up from behind the upstage wall, dance and do cartwheels center stage to a drum beat. A joyous mood is created that is sustained throughout. For dessert, Séneca will eat horses, cats, lions, and camels. Yesterday he ate a lion. And the lion engraved on paper didn’t even protest. “He didn’t even growl.” Séneca brags on about how he has eaten rhinoceroses, and elephants, crocodiles. But the three country mice, Ramon, Rafael and Raül, are worldly mice because they live in the trash and eat delicious real food scraps. They pooh-pooh the extravagant claims, calling them illustrations, drawings from a book.
Scruffy-looking Ramon protests that eating classics, such as The Odyssey or books of ancient history are not food. And Séneca ridicules them right back, saying, “One can tell right away that you are country mice…ignorant and illiterate.” He even accuses them of not knowing how to read. And Ramon comes right back, saying, that the three RA’s, who call themselves The Brothers RA RA RA, like a rock group, know how to run and sing through the countryside. So they break out into an hysterically funny, “Learn from the Brothers: Ra, Ra, Ra.” You can learn from listening and living. You don’t have to know how to read books in libraries. You can learn from life.
But Séneca, filled with zeal to reform, counters again with ridicule: “….the library is not a zoo.” The country mice need to know and digest the U.S. Constitution so they know their rights. The “colored plates” are banquets of food, the what and how of what the Library Mouse eats. And Séneca goes further. He verbally attacks the three rowdy mice for wallowing in trash. An argument develops as to what’s the difference between imaginative life, illusion and reality.
Enter Bellaco (Lorena Berger), a real cat who goes face-to-face with the Library Mouse and tells Séneca that if he just traveled outside his parochial world outside the library, he would know from real life that not all cats are pictures and drawings by an artist. Bellaco, costumed in a red skirt, disguises as Lolilla, and does a wild flamenco dance, with choreography by Kathy Gordon. And GAlita director Cecilia shows how tolerance and acceptance of different cultures and learning from experience can enrich our lives. But a warning is implied. Acceptance of diversity can descend into chaos and even war.
Some cats are actually alive. Here the staging gets chaotic until Seneca for the first time confronts Bellaco, costumed in black leotard, with headband and ears, as a real cat. Bellaco descends the stage and runs up and down both aisles. On the morning I saw the show, the children got involved and yelled and screamed to help Séneca with identification. For a moment when it is impossible for the English speaker in the audience to appreciate what is going on until the three RA’s sing in a song, “Bellaco is a cool cat!” Bellaco is not a paper cat, but a real cat who goes on a wild chase through the aisles and catches Séneca by the tail center stage, exposing the Library Mouse as a mere mouse.
Want to go?
Seneca: The Library Mouse
closes March 25, 2017
Details and tickets
There is another moment based on a classical reference that could be footnoted in the program. What are Samaniego’s Fables? Samaniego was a neoclassical fabulist, who lived from 1745 to 1801, and wrote 157 Spanish Fábulas/Fables, clever pithy sayings, including some about how cats fear dogs and dislike each other. These clever pithy tales reveal the true nature of reality, using cats as personifications of human behavior. Fables is a parallel classic like the Mayan “just-so” stories, explaining why animals are the way they are.
The author Díaz plays on the accepted truism that cats and mice and dogs all hate each other and can never get along. In this play, however, the dog Benigno, is different. Benigno seems lonely and just wants to befriend a cat, not tear it to bits. And actor Chema Pineda-Fernández plays Benigno, as if motivated by sheer loneliness. He wants a friend and the cat keeps running away scared. “I love cats but they always run away from me, as if I’m going to do them harm.” Pineda-Fernández does a good job of projecting an image of a bumbling, well-meaning, even kind-hearted, but foolish dog, who wants to make the world a better place. But he gets deceived by appearances over and over again. Benigno is a Spanish word that means “mild or benign.”
Because everyone who has read Samaniego’s Fables knows cats fear dogs. And that’s what Séneca has learned from reading only books. And what can we learn about cats from experience? That paws are not claws. Cats can be gentle, helpful creatures. And dogs and cats can be friends, if they are tolerant and accept their differences. It’s a truism helpful to remember to combat today’s bullying behavior among kids (and adults).
The ultimate constant between appearance and reality comes when Séneca finds himself trapped in a tree where he can’t get down. His books don’t tell him how to climb out of a tree. He discovers how he needs his friends. The classics can teach us that dogs, cats and mice can be helpful friends, but not tell us how to climb out of a tree. And we all have to learn to share information from experience, just as we all share the earth.
The day I saw the show the post show talk back focused for some time on eating paper. Do the actors really eat paper? Do they use real paper pages from library books? You must see the show to learn the secret.
SÈNECA: RATON DE BIBLIOTECA by Jorge Díaz, from Chile and Spain . Director: Cecilia Cackley. CAST: (in alphabetical order/en orden alfabético) features Lorena Berger, as Bellaco, the Cat/Gato; Pablo Guillén as Ramón, a street mouse/Ratón del barrio; Karent Hinestroza, Rafael, street mouse/Ratón del barrio; Adrián Iglesias plays Séneca, the Library mouse/Ratón de biblioteca. Karen Morales is Raúl, the street mouse/Ratón del barrio. And Chema Pineda-Fernández is Benigno, the Dog/Perro. Scenic Design/Escenógrafo: Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Lighting design/Diseño de Illuminación: Mary Keegan. Sound Designer/Diseño de Sonido: Roc Lee. Costumes & Properties: Alicia Tessari. Choreography/Coreografía: Kathy Gordon. Madison Lane is Stage Manager/Regidora de Escena: Madison Lane . Reuben Rosenthal is Technical Director/Director Técnico: Reuben Rosenthal . Production Manager/Gerente de Producción: Lena Salins . Hugo Medrano is Producer/Productor. Produced by the GALA Hispanic Theatre. Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.