Walking into Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) I knew, as you may, that there was a best-selling Spanish language movie of its time, and an equally popular novel/cookbook by Laura Esquivel. I hadn’t read or seen either, and didn’t even know what the title meant. But what I found at GALA Hispanic Theater was a frankly hilarious romance that unabashedly reveled in its dramatic and hot source material.
That’s the meaning of Como Agua Para Chocolate: boiling hot, like water used to make hot chocolate in the old style. And this play is full of so much bubbling passion, from Tita’s true love at first sight moment to the unconscionable family tradition that denies Tita her Pedro to her emotional martyrdom when her love marries her sister to be close to her, that this production and its audience can’t help but laugh at itself.
Like Water for Chocolate reads more adolescent on its surface, like a naughtier than usual YA novel, but this adaptation goes deeper, rooted in rather grand and storied literary traditions. Combining the mysterious and romantic symbolism of Garcia Lorca and classical comedic stock character acting (which goes back all the way to Lope De Vega in the 16th century), Como Agua Para Chocolate falls squarely into the “magical realism” genre, which may be the most popular type of new play on the market today and one that occupies hundreds of stage hours in DC every year.
This genre takes a realistic story, say a domestic dispute between a mother and daughter over whether the daughter should ever marry so she can take care of her mother forever, and adds magical or unexplained elements that heighten the conflict or serve to resolve an untenable tension, like the mother cursing her daughter from beyond the grave for not fulfilling her duty. Some plays of this genre focus on the realism and use the magic sparingly, but Como Agua Para Chocolate does the opposite. Every scene contains magic, some blindingly overt and some very subtle. Attention to detail is rewarded here, in moments like when Tita magically produces breast milk to feed her ailing sister’s infant.
The design of this production uses frequent projections to illuminate moments of magic or plot interest that might not otherwise read from the audience. Most effective from designer Niomi Collard was her use of varying sizes in projection, from a tight realistic image of a picture from a locket to a stage-swallowing galloping horse. They interact well with Mariana Fernández’ evocative scenic design, which felt eerily similar to ranchos I have visited in southern Mexico.
The well-packed design, which is admittedly uneven, keeps one’s attention throughout a play whose structure and execution lands in the realm of telenovela to the inexpert ear. The stakes are raised with unrelenting ferocity: a pregnancy here, a horrific accident there.
But the suffused magic of Like Water for Chocolate tends to undercut that plot acceleration by resolving obstacles too easily, a danger in all productions of the magical realism genre. Here, this phenomenon distances the audience from the characters’ emotional lives, making me wish for moments of empathy amid the comedy that the raised stakes usually inspire. There are some pangs of pathos though, and perhaps those were all that director Olga Sanchez felt this script could bear without upsetting the generally riotous balance of the show.
Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate)
closes October 7, 2018
Details and tickets
The acting, however, rescues Como Agua Para Chocolate from the jaws of farce into the safe arms of comedy. The standouts are such not by virtue of their fellows’ deficiency, but their own exceptionality. Luz Nicolás as Tita’s mother shows an absolute mastery of the actor’s tools: a disciplined physicality, well-toned voice and resonators, and a powerful emotional connection with her fellow actors. Karen Morales as Chencha has a truly jaw-dropping lock on the “perky servant girl” stock character (a Columbina for those used to stock characters). Morales charms the audience throughout, drawing eyes and laughs with her well-measured movement and precise diction.
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Diction was a surprisingly important element in this play for me, as a non-native Spanish speaker. I’m in the category of “I can listen to Spanish and mostly understand what’s going on but I speak like a child,” and I only needed the surtitles of this Spanish-language production on occasion. That said, following the surtitles was a challenge in the times when I did need to, as the speed match between stage language and title language was strained.
Como Agua Para Chocolate is, in many ways, a perfect date night play. The plot is dramatic enough to keep the evening moving; the design is cleanly executed enough to be beautiful; the comedy is light enough that most anyone will laugh; and the love is overwrought enough that yours will gain favorable comparison. Hopefully this play will make you as hot as water for chocolate.
Como Agua Para Chocolate adapted for the stage by Garbi Losada from the novel by Laura Esquivel. Directed by Olga Sáchez. Featuring Karen Romero, Luz Nicolás, Teresa Yenque, Karen Morales, Guadalupe Campos, Yaremis Félix, Inés Domínguez del Corral, Peter Pereyra, Carlos Castillo, and Delbis Cardona. Scenic Design by Mariana Fernández. Lighting Design by Christopher Annas-Lee. Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka. Music and Sound Design by David Crandall. Projections Design by Niomi Collard. Properties Design by Toney Koehler. Fight and Intimacy Direction by Jonathan Ezra Rubin. Stage Management by Catherine Nunez. Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre. Reviewed by Alan Katz.