Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Nilo Cruz has come to Washington’s GALA Hispanic Theatre to direct his most recent play, and has unleashed from his prodigiously creative mind something like a master class in imaginative theatricality.
Cruz starts his creative process with characters, and Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony) is no exception. It’s as if he’s thrown them all together like in that most Cuban of dishes of meat and vegetables, ropa vieja (strict translation is “old clothes,”) and let them stew. There’s Millie, an opera singer who has lost her husband in a car accident, her tattoo-artist daughter (Romy,) and a brooding brother (Tommy) who is mostly silent in Act I but wound so tight you know he’s dangerous. Enter the catalyst and possible agent for change,: a beautiful young man, Amér, who has recently become the recipient of Millie’s husband’s heart. Amér has a brother, Imanol, who seems to be part care-giver, part conscience and alter-ego, and part keeper-watchdog, and he tags along enriching the mix. Millie’s interest in Amér quickly turns into an obsession as she tries to reconnect with her husband and maybe herself, through a vital part of him – that symbolically central part – her husband’s heart.
Cruz asks the questions. What is family, the nature of loss, the unreliable seduction of memory, and, of course, what secrets, traits, and emotional “knowing” does a heart carry into a new body?
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Exploring this last question, Cruz has added one more character, Doctor Castillo, who serves as a kind of journey’s guide. His role feels the most enigmatic in that he first presents as a somewhat aloof scientist, unwilling to share everyone’s curiosity about the nature of what he considers a muscle and necessary engine of the body completely devoid of capacity to think. But Millie’s forceful and seductive personality wins him over sufficiently to first provide her with the identity of the heart recipient and then to initiate a deeper involvement. To say he’s an unreliable guide is an understatement; the role confounded me. But then the characters all reveal themselves to be “unreliable” and volatile creatures, and this is key to the work’s theatrical fascination.
In collaboration with Cruz, set designer Clifton Chadick and lighting designer Christopher Annas-Les, have created a rich color-saturated, suggestive environment and playing space. The stage is divided in half. Most of stage left is taken up by a square of stacked black shiny “boxes.” This three-tiered platform is enhanced by a street grate on top, upon which characters walk or sometimes stretch themselves out but which periodically glows from below and emits curling-smoke haze. Is this a warming device for lost wayfarers or something more Hades-like, a place calling to the characters to “go deep” or threatening to pull them down into the fiery underworld below? Stage left is covered in green indoor-outdoor carpeting upon which, “standing by,” are arranged several straight chairs painted gold. The actors, when not in a scene’s action, retreat there in Act I to form a chorus.
The program tells us the action takes place in Miami’s Coconut Grove, so I’m imagining one of those vast emptied ballrooms between events of a (once) grand hotel. There’s an enormous hanging chandelier but it’s bundled up in a protective pink bag. Upstage is a painted wall, a swirled pattern defined in rich peacock and gold, slightly suggestive of a curtain. This made me wonder if all this wasn’t then representing the backstage of an opera house. (And what a perfect use and re-imagining of the old theatrical space, the Tivoli, with its crumbing ornate circular ceiling, that has now become home to GALA.)
Ah, I mused, now we are Buñuel land, a land of magical cinematic surrealism. Sure enough, as in Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the most popular of the filmmaker’s extraordinary oeuvre, there is a central scene that becomes a kind of extended family dinner party gone awry.
Cruz in the first act artfully lets the characters out on his theatrical playground and so we can watch this fine ensemble explore through rhythm, music of language, and somatic gestures who these characters might or might not be. It’s most compelling.
Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony) closes March 1, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Luz Nicolás plays Millie Marcel with equal parts numbed grief and spirited coquetry and she is simply a force of nature in the role. In one moment, her needs seem so reasonable that I want to protect her sadness. For who can say, in matters of the heart’s loss of a great love when “enough” grieving is enough? At other moments, it seems she reinvents herself instantly to seduce the doctor and get his support for her determined quest to reconnect with her dead husband through the recipient of his prime organ. You get a sense of her character’s emotional toolbox as a supreme interpreter of high drama through Nicolás’ own gifts of the same. Millie is a deep romantic and fits into the trope of a Chekhovian performer-mother role; she is also vain, self-absorbed and silly to the point of narcissism.
Cruz has directed with great attention to expressive physicality. Nicolás stretches out her arms filling the stage space as only a diva can in one scene then seems to crawl and disappear into the tiny space of a man’s chest. Joel Hernández Lara as Amér in one minute pulls in his shoulders as if they are protective wings around his newly-installed heart, then restlessly paces the squared platform as if tempting the same heart to jump out and leave his body. He expresses total vulnerability as he opens his shirt to allow this strange older woman to push herself against him and commune with her dead husband. He also pushes her away vehemently at times, needing to state the obvious, “I am not Lorenzo!”
Some of the simplest business and stage directions seem magical under Cruz’ guidance. The ensemble as a chorus lift and carry a letter from one to another to indicate both the correct and intricate protocols for inviting a relationship between organ recipient and donor’s family and the passage of time. The focus each one brings to passing a piece of paper, loaded with all its hopes and fragility of the quest, is mesmerizing.
Catherine Nunez is in her most powerful and convincing role to date. Nunez has found in the character Romy a tough exterior, complete with tattoos, goth lipstick and leather boots. She strikes a strong presence with her widely-splayed stance. However, in the early scenes with her mother there is also something deliciously tender and compassionate. They curl up together, at times more like sisters than mother and daughter. In fact, their closeness begins to send up a red flag. Is their bond complicit and completely healthy? Romy carries other curious secrets.
If Act I moves like an artfully conducted piece of classical music, which Cruz has integrated throughout, Act II lands like a construction demolition. Whatever we thought we knew is demolished. What we might have had our suspicions about get hurled at us like a category 5 hurricane.
Without giving things away, Andrés Talero delivers a tour de force tirade in Tommy’s desire to demolish the family myths and spill its secrets. His volley is returned in a shouting match and soul-wrenching confessions. This feels less operatic and more like telenovela and messy soap opera stuff. It is only later I piece together Cruz’ intentional use of melodrama as form. Who are these people and for whom are they performing?
The other characters do what people do in a devastating storm; find shelter where and with whom they can. But somewhere in the mix the good doctor (Ariel Texidó) transforms into something of a clown, stumbles around the set in a fainting spell, makes himself at home with food and Millie, and starts to fling grapes in the air. By this point the other characters have exited off stage and somewhat chaotically reappeared, including José Antonio González as watchdog-brother, who convinces us that this family is a succubus organism wanting to suck the life out of his brother and must be rejected by the young man’s heart to survive. (In the final analysis, González seems to represent the only sane one of the bunch.)
And as always these people move past and under the looming billboard figure of the deceased father in a tightly cropped headshot, which has dominated the proceedings throughout. Is this indeed representing the man from beyond the grave who has stirred up so much and is the audience of one?
This is an evening of strong, compelling theater. While delivered in Spanish, (and even some Spanish speakers may miss out in the high-speed volley of some of the Cuban Spanish,) it is visually and emotionally stunning. Exquisite Agony is an important contribution to the whole Washington theater community delivered by a master of theatrical imagination.
They are asking us to consider through the poetry of theatre the existential question, “What is a heart but a door, a gateway, and a place where minds meet?”
Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony) Written and Directed by Nilo Cruz. Scenic Design by Clifton Chadick. Lighting Design by Christopher Annas-Lee. Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka. Properties Design by Rayna Cook. With Ariel Texidó, Luz Nicolás, Joel Hernández Lara, José Antonio González, Catherine Nunez and Andrés Talero. Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Luz Nicolas says
Thank you for such a beautiful review