An Interview with Playwright, Erlina Ortiz

I can’t believe that nearly two months have passed since I saw Las Mujeres, a captivating play by Erlina Ortiz, which premiered at Power Street Theatre Company in Philadelphia.

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Cast of Las Mujeres. Photo by Corem Coreano

I caught up with Erlina with some interview questions. These are her responses.

Deslumbrar: When did you know you wanted to be a playwright? How did that come about? 

Erlina Ortiz: The first time I proudly introduced myself as a playwright without feeling like a fraud was two years ago. I had been accepted into The Foundry, a Philly Playwright’s collective and for me that meant I was an official playwright now. I have always been a writer. When I was a little girl I would staple pieces of paper together and make little books. When I was in middle school I would come home from school everyday and plop in front of our family computer and commandeer it for the whole night while I worked on my ‘novel’. I still have that book I wrote and you know what, it is not that bad. My secret passion however had always been performing. I wanted to perform. Stage, film, tv, it didn’t matter. I loved assuming characters and getting that possessed feeling. My best path for this was Temple University. It was the only school I applied for and met a few important criteria for me; multidisciplinary program (I knew I needed to be a well-rounded artist and not just an actor), in a big city with lots of theatre going on, and relatively affordable compared to my other options. I had a fairly good experience at Temple, I wouldn’t take it back. However, I soon felt the sting of exclusion in my theatre department. At the most diverse university in the country I was one of 3 Latina’s in the department, and I soon realized that there was very little opportunity for me to showcase my talent on a Temple stage. The shows were either always an almost all white cast, or there would be the one ‘black show’ which I of course wasn’t right for either. I was stuck, and I realized as soon as I started seeing more shows in the city that the problem was not limited to my university. Around this same time I was taking a playwriting course. I found a strange power in writing my own characters. It was like acting, getting possessed by these voices that demanded to speak through me. It was more fun even because I wasn’t limited to one character. I got to be all the characters! A little while after that I was approached by Power Street Founder Gabriela Sanchez. Gaby told me she was starting a multicultural theatre company and I was like UM YES. So I joined, and I started writing the characters that I had so longed to see on stage. I started writing the stories that I thought mattered to my people, and the rest is herstory.

Deslumbrar: Tell me about your experience writing “Las Mujeres.” When did you start? What was your inspiration? etc.

Erlina Ortiz: Las Mujeres was quite the journey. I actually wrote the first one act version of it when I was a senior at Temple yet. It was the first piece of theatre I ever wrote to be seen in front of an audience. I was president of Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc at the time so I was able to rent space and hire a few of my friends to present it (something I was not able to do through my theatre department). It was not very good, but it was a great experience writing, casting, directing, producing etc and I knew that there was a lot of potential. I remember telling myself, one day you will produce a full length version of this play when you are a better writer. About 2 years ago I mentioned this to Gaby and she was like, OKAY, LET”S DO IT. So, I got to work on re-writing it as a full length piece, and Gaby got to work finding grants that would support readings of the play as it progressed. This was essential to the process and so helpful having clear deadlines with the goal of a production coming up. The inspiration for the piece is hard to remember since it was so long ago. It had mostly to do with me being angry at my theatre department and being like OKAY I’m going to do my own thing and I’m gonna write 6 Latina’s so ha! Later… As I researched the women I was writing about I felt an intense urgency to tell their stories. When I picked the play back up to rewrite it 2 years ago, I knew that I wanted it to be about what it means to be a Latinx Woman in 2018, and the sacrifices that women have to make to survive in male dominated work spaces. I wanted to educate people on the true lives of these courageous women, and I wanted my audience to see themselves in them and be inspired to take action. I hope I accomplished those things!

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Cast of Las Mujeres. Photo by Corem Coreano

Deslumbrar: What writing projects do you have coming up?

Erlina Ortiz: Currently I am working on a piece with Pig Iron Theatre called The Caregivers. This is a community based project led by Nell Bang-Jensen starring real life people who are taking care of ill loved ones. It is a story that does not get told, and it has been so beautiful being in the room with these big-hearted people. I am also working on a project with Power Street called Hidden Disabilities. I have Crohn’s disease, and other PSTC members have hidden disabilities as well. We wanted to break the stigma around these topics and offer an experience to our audience to consider what their own hidden disabilities are, or that of the person next to them. Both of these projects are premiering in June. I am also writing the book for a musical called Silueta about a Cuban- American immigrant and a Syrian- American refugee living together as roommates in NYC during the year 2016. I am so excited about all of these projects!

Deslumbrar: Describe your role in Power Street Theatre Company. What are goals of the company, and what plans are in store for the future? 

My role in the company is multifaceted. First and foremost I am Resident Playwright. So, I’m always writing with Power Street in mind. I am also artistic director, so I help plan out our seasons with Gaby, and am independently always thinking of ways we can meet the companies artistic vision. I am also an administrative member. We are small so we all play A LOT of roles. I help with grants, I make connections with artists we may want to work with in the future,  I represent Power Street wherever I go. We just had our three year planning meeting and I’m so excited for what’s to come! Gaby Sanchez quit her full time job for the start of this year to focus on Power Street, one of the main reasons Las Mujeres was such a success. We want to keep growing, at a reasonable pace so we can learn as we grow. We want to keep producing dynamic and important theatre in North Philly. We want to continue touring to universities and schools. We plan on starting two adult classes, one in playwriting, one in performance, within the next year (grants pending). Eventually we want some type of structure to call our Home.

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The altar that community youth made for Las Mujeres. Photo by Corem Coreano

Deslumbrar: Erlina, Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m sure readers out there are grateful too! For more information about Power Street Theatre Company, and upcoming productions visit their website:  https://www.powerstreettheatre.com/

 

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¨Valor, Agravio y Mujer:¨ A Play by a Woman, Curated by Women, at the Repertorio Español

¨Valor, Agravio y Mujer: escrita por una dramaturga del siglo de oro español. Dirigida y diseñada por Mujeres de Hoy.¨

The quote above appears on the playbill of the play,  translated as ¨Courage, Betrayal  and a Woman,¨ which is currently showing at the Repertorio Español in New York City. The rest of the quote in English reads: ¨written by a woman playwright of the Spanish Golden Age–directed and designed by women of today.¨

Repertorio Español (RE) added this production of the cape and sword comedy by Ana Caro Mallén de Soto, which was published sometime in the 17th century in Spain, to its repertoire in October 2017.  RE´s production is directed by Leyma López. On April 21, 2018, I attended, and I highly recommend this polished and engaging production to all who can get to the RE to see it.

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Zulema Clares and Luis Carlos de la Lombana. Photo by Michael Palma Mir. 

 

This was not my first time at the Repertorio Español, but I had not been in several years. Upon entering, I was greeted warmly at the box office and welcomed by the usher, into the familiar lobby. This was my first experience with the subtitles on the seats. In 2012 RE installed the Simultex In Seat Captioning System (similar to that at the Metropolitan Opera) and this makes their productions, which are performed in Spanish, super-accessible to non-Spanish speakers, and without distracting titles projected on a screen above the stage, as is done in some other theaters. Although I never used the previous system of bulky headphones to hear a simultaneous translation in English, I commend RE´s dedication in promoting theater in Spanish to diverse audiences. Now even deaf people can enjoy the shows in either Spanish or English, by reading the titles.

Honestly, I cannot wait to go back and see Valor, agravio y mujer again. Spanish Golden Age theater is usually written in verse, and this play in particular, is not that easy to visualize with just one read, due to the poetry and the somewhat archaic language. However, the ensemble in this production enthusiastically lifted this text off the page and brought it to breathing and pulsing life!

The interpretation is performed in rich, sumptuous looking period costumes on a virtually empty set, both designed by Leni Méndez. The only adornment to the stage are tall thin movable poles and a platform reached by stairs in the front and on each side. The actors use these structures to situate the action, which is sometimes indoors, on a ship or outside. The light design by Lucrecia Briceño, works in tandem with the set, costumes and sound (by Zulema Clares) to firmly support and elucidate the drama. Nothing else was needed to supplement the superb acting, which completely drew me into this 17th century world.

Zulema Clares stars as the strong, smart and courageous Leonor, who dresses as a man to avenge her honor by hunting down her untrustworthy suitor, Don Juan. She was convincing as both Leonor and Leonardo, with different expression and body movement for each. Don Juan is deftly rendered by Luis Carlos de la Lambona–who at times is confident and cocky and at others, remorseful and contrite.

The play begins with Leonor dressing in men´s clothes. She is aided by her manservant/squire, Ribete. Erick González adds zing to this fun sidekick with captivating movement and gesture. Gerardo Gudiño was Don Fernando Rivera, a clearly delineated and pivotal role as Leonor´s brother. Soraya Padrao (Estela), Maria Cotto (Lisarda), Sendor Juan (Tomillo), Rafa Sánchez (Príncipe Ludovico) and Gonzalo Trigueros (various roles), rounded out the talented and well rehearsed cast.

Unique moments that added humor, drama or delight to the staging, included the lights, mists, poles and movement to portray the voyage by sea, the baroque music, and the use of a male actor (Trigueros) to interpret a female servant.

The plot and message of Valor, agravio y mujer, are universal: a woman wants to confront a man who has taken advantage of her/lied and everyone can relate to this. In the 17th century, when this comedy was written, in real life women rarely would be able to do this–confront him. Sometimes brothers or other family members would take matters into their own hands to avenge her honor and right this wrong with a duel. Ana Caro was definitely ahead of her time, thrusting the female protagonist into the role of avenger and empowering her to determine her own fate. The stellar acting and solid direction make the verse easy to understand and the subtitles, if needed, further facilitate audience engagement. Those who like classical theater, like Shakespeare, will find Valor, agravio y mujer particularly appealing. I hope that you will sample this play, written by a woman about 400 years ago, and staged by women today at the Repertorio Español. I know I will return to see it again!

Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, no intermission.

Valor, Agravio y Mujer is currently in repertory, and plays through August 24, 2018 at the Repertorio Español–138 East 27th Street, New York, NY 10016. For more information and tickets, contact the box office at 212.225.9999 or purchase online.

Bienvenidos Blancos: Confronting Myths and Stereotypes about Cuba

April 19, 2018 marks a historical event in Cuba, even if few are paying attention. After nearly 60 years of rule by either Fidel Castro, “El Comandante,” or his brother Raúl Castro, Cuba finally has a new President, Miguel Diaz-Canel. He was not elected by the people, and the international news professes that there will be little change in the country. However, only time will tell what might happen to governance and daily life in the tenacious and turbulent island nation.

The day after, I had the pleasure of attending Bienvenidos Blancos, by Alex Torra, at the FringeArts in Philadephia. Bienvenidos Blancos,  or “Welcome White People,” is a provocative title of this new work, by Alex Torra and the Team Sunshine Performance Corporation, with support by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Alex Torra also directed the piece, assisted by Cheryl Zaldívar Jiménez, which was developed in collaboration with the acting ensemble at Teatro Ludi, Swarthmore Project in Theater, Swarthmore College, Taller Puertorriqueño and FringeArts.

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Bienvenidos Blancos is a bilingual production (Spanish/English) and the cast includes Americans and Cubans: Jorge Enrique Caballero Elizarde, Benjamin Camp, Lori Felipe Barkin, Idalmis Garcia Rodriguez, and Jenna Horton. Timbalona, a percussion duo comprised of Andrés Cisneros and Christian Noguera, provided pre-show music. The show is arranged in four chapters and at the end Torra comes out and addresses the audience directly. He speaks about his Cuban heritage and its inspiration for the play. His parents immigrated from Cuba and he is trying to hold on to the culture in his own life and identity.  Paloma Irizarry handled the supertitles, which worked perfectly on Friday, April 20. Since much of the audience is non-Spanish-speaking, the English titles projected on a small screen above the action are important, but not intrusive.

Bienvenidos Blancos is humorous and parodies stereotypes and misconceptions that predominate about Cuba and its people (and Americans too!) . The approach is experimental, lacking a linear narrative. It organically weaves dialogue, music, dance and Afro-Cuban folklore and religion to create a collage of vignettes.

The action on stage is entertaining and usually funny but it does take some time to digest the messages that the actors are attempting to convey. Torra´s Cuba is neither the Cuba of those born and raised on the island before the Revolution or after. Nor is it that imagined by the ´blancos´ or monolingual tourists who mostly visit to enjoy the beaches and experience what they imagine is the vibrant Cuban culture–like a tropical show with dancing girls with big headdresses and maracas. It is a mix of what is passed down through generations, filtered through the lens of Cubans who left the island due to the Revolution, as well as  the input of contemporary Cuban actors (who live in today´s post-1959 Cuba) involved in the show. It  is influenced by Torra´s perceptions as a Cuban-American living in the United States. Depending on where such immigrants live in the USA, the experience could be one that celebrates the culture of the ´old country,´ replete with nostalgia, or it might be quite xenophobic and discriminatory, or a blend of both.

Costumes by Fabian Fidel Aguilar, and set by Efren Delgadillo, Jr., are simple but they invoke Cuba. The arches over the doors to the wings, remind me of those that I have seen in Havana, and the military, historical and tropical show costumes also situate the interactions. The stark uncluttered set (except for a desk, chairs, Che Guevara poster, and a few other items) has a familiar ´empty´ and utilitarian feel, typical of interior design in Cuba and in some of the former nations of the USSR that I have visited.

The ensemble of actors is tight and works well together. The comedic timing, especially by Cuban actors, Caballero Elizarde and Garcia Rodriguez, is spot on. I was impressed by their acting–both smoothly transitioned through multiple characters. Particularly strong and engaging is the entire cast´s interpretation of Cuban history and the tropical show scene.

Bienvenidos Blancos is overall a thought-provoking and engaging evening. It is a must-see for those interested in or familiar with Cuba, and also those who enjoy experimental theater. Please note, that there is no intermission and the play runs for 90 minutes.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Bienvenidos Blancos plays through April 28, 2018 at Fringearts: 140 N. Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets please contact the box office at 215-413-9006 or purchase online.

 

 

 

“Las Mujeres:” A New Play by Erlina Ortiz

“Healing, Educated, Opening, Love, and Empowerment.” These were several of the words that audience members shouted out in the Talkback after Saturday’s powerful performance of Las Mujeres (The Women), produced by Power Street Theatre Company  (PSTC) in Philadelphia. Written by Erlina Ortiz, a Dominican-American, Las Mujeres, despite the Spanish title, is performed in English at the West Kensington Ministry in the Northeast part of the city. The show was sold out and most of the enthusiastic and appreciative audience stayed for the conversation afterwards.

To quote Ortiz, “Las Mujeres seeks to educate and inspire audiences by providing comedic and dramatic insight on the challenges women and Latinx people face when assimilating into traditional male dominated spaces.”  She has written a solid script that is clear and direct, with frequent humor. The characters include two contemporary women, as well as four icons: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, an intelligent and well-educated nun from Mexico’s colonial period, Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s most famous female visual artist, Rita Hayworth, (whose real name was Margarita Carmem Cansino, and was of Spanish and gitana descent) and Minerva Mirabal, who along with her sisters, fought against the oppressive dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.

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Photo by Corem Coreano

The cast includes Gabriela Sanchez (also the Founder and Managing Director of PSTC), Krystal Lizz Rosa, Diana Rodriguez, Anjoli Santiago, Marisol Custodio, and Lorenza Bernasconi. Tamanya M.M. Garza, director, created a tight ensemble that deftly interpreted the script. As Frida, Diana Rodriguez had many of the comic lines that inspired robust laughter. I particularly enjoyed the characterization of gentil Sor Juana (Anjoli Santiago) and the use of her poetry in the interaction. Lorenza Bernasconi, who has a sweet  and well projected voice, also sang as Rita Hayworth. Rounding out the women from the past, Marisol Custodio was a sober and strong Minerva Mirabal.  Krystal Lizz Rosa, (Lena) performs for the first time outside of Temple University, and she is a promising talent. The most difficult role was that of Marlene, played with conviction by Gabriela Sanchez. She experiences a range of emotions throughout the play and must relate to four dead women from different countries and centuries!

Power Street Theatre is working hard to bring the audience to the performance. In addition to offering discount tickets for industry, students, veterans, community residents and senior citizens, economical ticket prices ($10-25), audience members can take advantage of child care services while at the show by reserving 24 hours ahead of time! High school students 18 and under are admitted free! So there are no excuses… don’t miss this new evocative play about a latina’s experience.

Running time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, no intermission.

Las mujeres plays through March 17, 2018, performing at the West Kensington Ministry–2140 N Hancock St, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, purchase them online.  Tickets are also available at the door an hour before showtime.

Lorca Crosses Over in Philadelphia: Wilma Theater’s Blood Wedding

Federico García Lorca is Spain’s most popular playwright/poet of the 20th century. Unfortunately, his life was cut short by events leading up to the Spanish Civil War, but his poetry and plays live on in the hearts and minds of the people. Blood Wedding or in Spanish, Bodas de sangre, is part of a trilogy of plays that includes the phenomenally well known La casa de Bernarda Alba  (The House of Bernarda Alba), and the less often produced, Yerma.  Almost everbody in Spain and most of Latin America is familiar with these plays. In addition, the Repertorio Español in New York, has had La casa de Bernarda Alba in repertory for decades, and in Philadelphia, a captivating bilingual version was recently staged in the 2016 Fringe Festival.  Wilma Theater’s new production of Blood Wedding in Philadelphia is further proof that there are no national borders that limit the appreciation of Lorca’s art.

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– Jered McLenigan, Campbell O’Hare and the Company of The Wilma Theater’s 2017 production of Blood Wedding. Photo by Bill Hebert

In my opinion, Lorca’s plays in English tend to be less successful than those done in Spanish or bilingually, even though they are more accessible to an American audience, many who have never heard of Lorca and don’t speak Spanish either. There is a poetry, a cadence, a rhythm and passion to the words that is sometimes lost in translation. Also, when producing his plays in English, there may be an attempt to “make it Spanish” with realistic set, period costumes and even Spanish music, but that can seem superficial alongside English words and inauthentic gestures/body language.

Wilma Theater employs an original English translation by Nahuel Telleria, and takes a novel approach to Blood Wedding. It avoids the previous mentioned pitfalls, by stripping Blood Wedding down to its pure emotion and action.The plot revolves around a young woman who is going to marry a man that she does not love. She has been involved with another man who comes from a family that is notorious for violence, and there is an ongoing feud between her fiance’s family and the old lover’s family because of previous murders. Hungarian director and choreographer, Csaba Horváth, builds a world onstage that is full of movement, intensity and sound. This production has a sparse set and dramatic lighting, both designed by Thom Weaver.  Sound design is by Larry D. Fowler, Jr. and Oana Botez fashioned simple costumes that are appropriate for the physical movement required. Blood Wedding  incorporates live (non-Spanish) music composed by Csaba Okros, and sung and played by the actors themselves.

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 Lindsay Smiling, Campbell O’Hare, and Matteo Scammell in The Wilma Theater’s 2017 production of Blood Wedding. Photo by Bill Hebert.

Blood Wedding as physical theatre works. The action is riveting and all attention is on the performers since there is no fussy set to distract. The choreography is innovative and utilizes the entire stage and a balcony on a second level. The characters also sing, chant and play instruments. But the music, like the interactions, is earthy and raw. This fits in well with the rural characters’ motivations, frustrations and passions.

The ensemble has been preparing the movement in Blood Wedding for over a year. Most of the cast are members of “Wilma HotHouse” and include: Ross Beschler, Taysha Marie Canales, Sarah Gliko, Justin Jain, Jered McLenigan, Campbell O’Hare, Jaylene Clark Owens, Brett Ashley Robinson, Matteo Scammell, Lindsay Smiling and Ed Swidey. As the Bride, Campbell O’Hare is most expressive in her dancing and physical movement. She is able to convey the desire and insecurity of a young woman marrying a man she doesn’t love while pining for another. Ed Swidey, as her father, handles Lorca’s words naturally–the part seems written for him. As the groom’s mother, Jaylene Clark Owens’ is a strong, yet wary matriarch.  Lindsay Smiling, as Leonardo (the old flame) in terms of dance/physical technique, is a supportive partner in the pas-de-deux with both his wife, played by Sarah Gliko,

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The Company of The Wilma Theater’s 2017 production of Blood Wedding. Photo by Bill Hebert.

and lover (O’Hare). He communicates his conflicting feelings through the choreography. Sarah Gliko stands out, not only for her acting and movement, but for her singing and playing musical instruments throughout the show.

Wilma Theater is known for its experimental theatre, so it is in its tradition to do something “different” with one of Lorca’s masterpieces. This Blood Wedding is an experience that will appeal particularly to those who appreciate experimental approaches, dance and physical theatre. If you are looking for flamenco, Spanish costumes, an elaborate set, and want to revel in the sound of Lorca’s verse, look elsewhere. Movement and pure emotion take center stage in this production.

Please note that the running time of Blood Wedding is an hour and fifty minutes, with NO intermission.

“Azul”, a new play by Tanaquil Márquez: Getting Under Picasso’s Skin!

Two women, Inez Korff and Liliana Ruiz, in traditional black dresses dance the fiery flamenco. No music is even necessary because their feet beat the rhythm in a precise yet complex zapateo. Later, the guitar and drums, played by Blane and Donna Bostock, join in—their soulful and passionate sounds make a grand match with the dance, to bring out the duende, first theorized by Federico Garcia Lorca, Andalucía’s native son. The flamenco comes from Spain, specifically Andalucía, from the “Roma” people, los gitanos, or more universally known as “the gypsies.” In her new play, Azul, Tanaquil Márquez weaves flamenco dance, movement, Spanish music and multilingual spoken dialogue into a collage of Pablo Picasso’s life before he became famous. Azul, presented by La Fábrica at The Drake Theatre in Philadelphia, is also directed by Márquez, and the score is composed by Blane Bostock.

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Márquez dives into the reason or motivation for Picasso’s “Blue Period,” hence the title, which means blue in Spanish. Azul is a play packed with the love affairs, friendships, and eccentricities of Picasso’s early life. His painting “La Vie” (the life), is the point of departure and also the cohesive element connecting the music, dance and the scenes. Two of the characters, Carles, Picasso’s best friend, and Germaine, a woman they were both involved with and who both tried to kill, are seen as subjects of the painting La Vie” in Azul. Picasso’s blue period is characterized by an emotional despondency, triggered by the death of his best friend. In this phase of his life, his art was seen at the time by collectors as “depressing” and not “sellable” due to the subjects and the limited palette.

Azul is an ambitious and epic work, more than two hours long. It requires much attention from the viewer, since the characters speak Spanish, French and English. There is a poem recited in Catalan by Carles too. Picasso at least translates it into Spanish in the scene.Márquez (in her writing) and the cast handle the languages expertly—they flow naturally and effortlessly. As a fluent speaker of Spanish and English, and a former student of French, following the language shifts was not a problem for me, but I imagine for monolingual English speakers, especially those without much knowledge of Picasso’s life or work, it could be challenging. In that case, Azul would offer a completely different experience.

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Nevertheless there is enough going on with the music, dance and movement to captivate even the monolingual audience member. Particularly strong are the scenes in the second act which incorporate dance, choreographed by Liliana Ruiz: when Picasso visits the woman’s prison and the bullfight/dance with Germaine. Both captured the respective moods and communicated the message without words.

Márquez also directs the extremely talented ensemble of performers. As Picasso, Zach Aguilar, is a very likeable protagonist, perhaps much more than Picasso himself and he delivers well in both Spanish and English. He has a commanding stage presence that reflects the charisma that Picasso probably had in real life. Paloma Irizarry as Odette, was a sweet and sympathetic lover, and she also displayed versatility as the other “positive” women in Pablo’s life, Nina, Conchita and Fernande.   I was impressed by her natural quality in both French and Spanish.

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As Germaine, Sol Madariaga was cruel and brazen. Madariaga excels as the villian, displaying a calm unfeeling exterior at times, and then bursting into a rage. She was the one who rejected Carles, and later engages in a dysfunctional and obsessive relationship with Picasso. Germaine was appropriately over the top, aggressive and irritating. She was the perfect contrast to Odette, and she was the menace loved and hated by Carles and Picasso. Germaine is depicted as a negative influence on both men, yet she appears as a subject of “La Vie.” As Carles Casagemas and Max Jacob, friends of Picasso, Cameron Del Grosso, shows tremendous acting range. Carles comes across as a fragile yet romantic and sincere artist, while Max is confident and much more in control. Inez Korff, Yajaira Paredes, Veronica Ponce de Leon Placencia and Liliana Ruiz round out the cast and deserve extra praise for dancing and playing both male and female characters convincingly. Dramatic and effective lighting was designed by Alyssandra Dochtery and costumes by David Reese Hutchison.

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Azul is definitely a “must-see” for artists and lovers of Picasso’s art, if only to commiserate in the representation of his struggles. It provides background information about his life and his creative inspiration. It shows onstage the dilemma of “how do I sell my art and still be true to my own self/voice” that all artists face at one point or another. Flamenco aficionados will enjoy the dancing, and Spanish speakers will appreciate the opportunity to attend theatre in the language in Philadelphia.

Hopefully we will be seeing more of La Fábrica and of works by up and coming playwright, Tanaquil Marquéz. Azul plays through Sunday August 29 at the Drake Theatre in Philadelphia. For tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/azul-tickets-35309378301

For more information about La Fábrica: https://www.facebook.com/LaFabricaTheater

To read a review about Azul in DCMetro Theater Arts: DC Metro Theater Arts

The Duende Cycle’s BODAS DE SANGRE: ¡Un orgullo hispano!

The Duende Cycle’s BODAS DE SANGRE: ¡Un orgullo hispano!

With great admiration I write about the  Duende Cycle’s performance of Bodas de sangre in the 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. I attended on Sunday, September 18, 2016. This scrappy company  recreated and updated Federico García Lorca’s masterpiece and it worked! The concept was created by Eliana Fabiyi and Tanaquil Márquez. Tanaquil Márquez also directed. The nimble cast really brought the play to life and they received a standing ovation at the end.   Lorca’s language is not as poetic and strictly in verse as that of Calderón de la Barca, from the Golden Age, but its structure and Spanish language are still much more formal than what most Spanish speakers in the United States normally speak.  Lorca called it “Poema trágico en tres actos y siete cuadros.” To juggle two languages (English and Spanish) in one production, is another feat. The cast, director and acting coach, Eliana Tabiyi, (also the sound designer) should be commended for the successful rendering of this very important and challenging script.

When I arrived at the Asian Arts Initiative, we were directed to stand and wait for the elevator. It took some time to get up to the third floor because the elevator only held 6 people. At the ticket table they ran out of programs, and we were informed the subtitles were broken. Since I am a fluent Spanish speaker I was not concerned about the subtitles. Before the show started they did manage to give out more programs. The program is quite special–it is made like a wedding invitation, which is very appropriate for Blood Wedding.  This was one of many details that added authenticity and at the same time uniqueness to this production.

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The original play is set in Spain, in a region with vineyards. This current production takes place in Miami. Although we tend to think of California as our wine country, there are quite a few vineyards in Florida. The set included a table and chairs with dominoes, which is very Cuban and Cuban-American. There were group dances–in the beginning to latin music–including hits by Gente de Zona, “La gozadera” (an extremely popular Cuban group)  and Marc Anthony’s “Vivir mi vida.” During the wedding, there is another dance to “Despierte la novia”, which is sung acapella except for bongo drums. It was tinged with a flamenco rhythm. Lorca is so associated with the gypsy culture, that this scene seemed like an homage, a showing of deep respect for the original play and its author.

The set is simple, but extremely effective. The mound of dirt heightened the earthiness, the very visceral feeling of Lorca’s tragedies. It was also a way to create space in a very small area and bring nature indoors. It made sense when La madre comes down from the dirt hill after visiting the graves of her husband and son. It made the swamp believable in the third act as well. Lighting and costumes by Angela Coleman and David Reece Hutchison, were also appropriate and helped flesh out the different locations and characters.

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Every actor in the ensemble was strong. Some of the actors convincingly interpreted more than one character.  I especially liked the contrast between La Madre, Yajaira Paredes and La Novia, Aneesa Neibauer. Ms. Parades is obviously a veteran actor, and she has an electric stage presence. She played the mother as a sturdy matriarch. A suffering widow, yet one who maintains her dignity and commands respect. At the other extreme, La Novia, was a fragile young woman. Ms. Neibauer’s portrayal was very natural. This simple and naive bride made you feel sorry for her and believe it wasn’t her fault–when it fact she decided to leave her husband and run away with Leonardo. She could have not married him or she could have resisted Leonardo. I also must mention the fight between Leonardo, (Sidney Gantt) and El novio (Josh Tewell). It was SO realistic. I was expecting that one would really be stabbed and blood would spill. (Of course I breathed a sigh of relief when both actors stood up and took their bows at the end!)

Duende in Spanish has several meanings, but one of them is to have a superior talent, to represent the authentic soul of art.   Duende Cycle showed that in Bodas de sangre. I look forward to their next offering!

Check out their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TheDuendeCycle/

 

 

“Where is home?”  Children of the Cuban Revolution in the play, “ONE DAY OLD”

“Where is home?” Children of the Cuban Revolution in the play, “ONE DAY OLD”

Imagine you are a child or a teenager put on an airplane to another country. Your parents and relatives are not going with you. You do not know the language of the country you are going to. Probably you’ve never even been out of your country, perhaps not even to the other side of the island. Most likely you’ve never been on an airplane before either. You don’t really understand what’s going on in your country (neither do your parents–just that they don’t think the current leadership is going to do what they thought) and expect it to be over soon and you will be back home. But it isn’t. In fact, it still isn’t over for many, as the Cuban Revolution lives on and Fidel Castro, the original “revolutionary leader” ceded power to his brother Raúl.  But you are only 8 or 9, or 12 or 15, at the time when you leave the island. You just want to know: When am I going  home? Where is Mom? Dad? Where are my other brothers and sisters?  Why can’t I stay here anymore? Where is here? Where is home?

Now that the  United States’ policy towards Cuba is opening up, the play “One Day Old” by Iraisa Ann Reilly, comes at an opportune time. This play is part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2016, and was directed by José M. Avilés. The political aspect floats in the background as we watch Wendy, Pedro, Gancho, Tío Juan and others try to make sense of the time shortly after 1959, the “triunfo de la revolución” ( the triumph of the revolution as it is called in Cuba). I attended the preview on September 8, 2016 and was very impressed with the play and the acting.

First off, the play is about the Operación Pedro Pan, which helped over 14,000 children leave Cuba on commercial flights from Cuba to the U.S.A.  from  1960-62, and then later through third countries, such as Spain and Mexico. According to the Operación Pedro Pan website,  many of these children were from middle class and poor families. The children of the wealthy were able to leave with their families and were already installed in the United States. Father Bryan Walsh, a Catholic priest from Miami and Catholic Charities, arranged visas for the children and put them up in camps, orphanages, with relatives or in other private homes.

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One Day Old is not explicitly about the Cuban Revolution though, nor is it about the parents and why they did what they did. It is about the children who came to the United States, and what they went through. One Day Old is a very interesting and creative way of depicting the feelings and the experiences of these young people, as well as descendents of these children, when they look back on what they have been told by their parents and grandparents. Ms. Reilly has written a script that is at times humorous, and at other times, sad. We feel for these children and we want to know will they find what they are looking for, what is missing in their lives. Most importantly, will they ever get home?

You might have noticed that the title of the organization that lifted the children out of Cuba has been named “Operation Peter Pan.” One Day Old exploits this name and draws on the fantasy Peter Pan story. The main characters in One Day Old are Wendy, Pedro (Peter) and Gancho (Hook.). There are references and parallels to the Peter Pan fantasy throughout the play. Also, Ms. Reilly weaves reality with fantasy, showing the audience the dream world of Wendy, and explaining aspects of the realities of the Peter Pan children who left Cuba. This fits in the tradition of Latin American  realismo mágico (magic realism).  The play also employs the Cuban musical tradition. There are two lullabies that feature prominently in the play, “Afro-Cuban Lullaby”, which opens the play, and has been arranged and played by famous guitarists, such as Christopher Parkening:

Most of the audience will be familiar with the piece, even if they don’t know the name of it, or where it comes from. There is a version of another lullaby, “Duérmete niño”, which is also sung a capella by various characters and becomes a leitmotif:

The set, props and costumes are basic and abstract, but they are effective. The drama in this piece is so strong and well done that a realistic set is not necessary. One does not miss it at all. The ensemble cast is excellent. I particularly adored the characterizations of “Sara” played by Diana M. Rodriguez and “Hermano/Tío Juan” played by veteran actor/singer Victor Rodriguez. Playing a child AND an adult in the same play and making them both believable is a challenge for any actor, and Victor does it with aplomb. As Sara, Diana contrasted with the children in the orphanage/camp scene by her stance and authoritarian, yet caring speech–even though all the actors were adults. Lastly, the bilingual script is so well crafted with respect to the two languages, that I think even those who do not speak Spanish, would be able to follow the plot and the interactions.

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What also distinguishes Ms. Reilly’s One Day Old, is the fundraising. Not only did Ms. Reilly need to fundraise to have the set built, but she is also donating part of the contributions she receives towards the play, to charity. She has set up the “Indiegogo 1960 Campaign” which paid for the set, but which also benefits St. Francis and St. Vincent’s Orphanage. In addition, 10% of every ticket sold to the play during the Fringe Festival is donated to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. This is very commendable. The cast of One Day Old gives the gift of their talent in realizing this play on stage, and funds received/tickets sold also help two charities for children.

One Day Old officially opens tonight, September 9, 2016 at 7:00 pm at the Hamilton Family Arts Center in Philadelphia (Arch and 2nd St.). The play continues at 7:00 pm on September 10, 15, and 17, with matinees at 4:00 pm on September 11 and 18th. If you aren’t in Philadelphia during those days, consider donating to the Indiegogo campaign. For more information about the play and to contribute (click “Support the Play”) , please visit onedayoldtheplay.com

For tickets to One Day Old during the Fringe Festival, please visit http://fringearts.com/event/one-day-old-7/

 

 

 

ESCUELA: Too much lecturing, not enough drama

At the end of the play, the guerrillas stood in a circle, each one with pistol in hand. It was New Year’s Eve, or at least that was their cover. Real shots rang out from the guns announcing the new year and the end of the lessons, and the performance. Unfortunately, for some in the audience, that was a relief…

ESCUELA, (SCHOOL), a play by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón,  produced by FRINGE ARTS in Philadelphia, offers the audience lessons in how to fight back against an unjust government.  At the same time it is a tribute to Chileans who suffered through the Pinochet dictatorship–those who endured it, those who fought it as well as to those who were tortured and murdered. According to the playbill, it is supposed to take place in 1988 when the dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, put forth a referendum to govern for 8 more years. Some Chileans were excited to vote on it but others saw through this ploy–Pinochet remained as commander in chief of the army until 1998, even though the dictatorship officially ended on March 11, 1990.

The structure of the performance oscillates between different lessons about what one needs to understand about the regime, guerrilla consciousness, and shooting practice. At first this set-up seems promising, but in the end there was no dramatic arc to the play–it was essentially didactic and static, and after an hour, it became somewhat tedious since the audience knew what to expect.

Nevertheless, on Saturday January 30,  the cast and director (Guillermo Calderón) deserve accolades for the seamless and well rehearsed production. The delivery of the lines was exceptional and crisp. There were English subtitles for the non-Spanish speakers and they did have to stop for a few minutes to fix it due to a glitch, but otherwise it worked well. The acting was natural within the context of the dramatic structure, of a training cell.

The set was simple, composed of a table, some chairs and a chalkboard. The subtitles were projected above the chalkboard, and images related to the lessons and the revolutionary cause were projected onto it. The play opened with protest songs. The singing was well done. I didn’t know anything about the play, other than that it was about Chile  and guerrilla tactics, and with mistaken delight I thought that it was going to be a musical when they started singing.

In addition to how to fire a weapon, other topics covered in  ESCUELA, included: “What is Exploitation;” the military, conspiracy, change of the government, psychological warfare and handling bombs. The characters all wore scarves to cover their faces. This makes sense, because it is quite likely that they would do that in real life if they were guerrillas in training. However, this tactic does not help to endear characters to the audience or establish some kind of connection with their struggle. We don’t know anything about these people until near the end, when we find out that one had fought in Libya and another was dressed up in a sequined outfit and heels because she was told the “cover” was a New Year’s Eve party. There is also a photo from 1987 projected onto the screen that references the playwright–and it is explained what those 4 revolutionaries, including Guillermo Calderón, went on to do in their lives later.

Although I understood the device used, of recreating the “school” or lessons that the guerrillas would have been taught in training, and I thought it creative, it did not go far enough to engage the audience. I am not an expert at all in Chile or Chilean politics, but I am a Latin Americanist, familiar with the continent.  I believe that a non-Spanish speaker, who came off the street to see this play, would understand very little (even with the subtitles). There is too much history and backstory. ESCUELA is very specific and requires a good deal of knowledge about Chile to appreciate it.  The history and politics are accentuated, yet it comes off as impersonal.  It uses the “school/la escuela” format, but this does not encourage us to identify with the struggle or support the characters’ motivations.  We do not see their faces, we do not know their individual stories. We do not know what is in their hearts. We can only guess by their clothing and voices who they might be.  This is enough to keep the audience paying attention for about an hour, and then it becomes routine.  Was the playwright attempting to say that all these guerrillas or protestors were essentially the same? That it didn’t matter who they were, that they didn’t matter against the regime?

ESCUELA, superbly performed for what it was, depicts and explains a guerrilla training process. Depending on the audience member’s knowledge, the play may feel like a solemn tribute to Chile or an animated how-to-conspire manual. At any rate, FRINGEARTS in Philadelphia should be commended for featuring and supporting theatre from Latin America–we don’t see enough of it!