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!

 

 

¨POUR ELISE¨: Opera ‘light’

A man walks out and sits down. He begins to riff on an acordion. Other musicians come on stage with their instruments– a bass, a violin. The percussionist sits down at the drums. A white digital piano–a miniature baby grand, stands downstage in the corner. What next?

Having only seen one Brazilian musical before (a revival of Chiquinha Gonzaga’s FORROBODÓ last year in Rio de Janeiro), I really did not know what to expect from POUR ELISE–other than some kind of rendition of Beethoven’s masterpiece, FÜR ELISE, some time during the play. FÜR ELISE is a favorite piece given to any young pianist, and is easily recognized by most classical trained musicians. For sure it evokes romance and longing and all of the drama that we think of when we think of Beethoven.

Cláudio Goldman, the composer of this musical, weaves the musical leitmotiv, based on Beethoven’s piece, into a tightly knit narrative based on his grandparents’ lives.  Elise is a singer and Sbig a pianist. They meet in Poland before World War 2 and later in Brazil, where they are united. Elise is Sbig’s true love. Throughout the musical, we hear some of opera’s top hits.  They are performed either with the original lyrics in Italian, or with Portuguese adaptations which fit the storyline.

Although the opera excerpts do work in this story, it is funny to experience them because they invoke the originals, and the contrasts with Sbig and Elise are not quite what those composers had in mind. For example, the Duke in RIGOLETTO, who sings ‘La donna é mobile¨is a carefree playboy who loves seducing women.  The Don Giovanni of ¨La ci darem la mano¨ in DON GIOVANNI, shamelessly brags about being the worse cad in opera who has ravished hundreds of innocent damsels across Spain. Zerlina, with whom he sings the duet, is a naive country girl he is bent on having. Considering that Sbig is never portrayed as a ladies man,  it is ironic (and almost ridiculous) that he invokes these characters. In addition, ¨La donna é mobile¨ is used when Elise dumps him and returns to her husband. He is the victim in this case, not the woman. Elise is portrayed as a worldly woman and she is the one who is married and having an affair with Sbig. The ¨ Brindisi¨ (Libiamo) from La Traviata is also sung in POUR ELISE, as well as the enigmatic Gynomopedie by Satie, another ‘greatest hit’ of Western art music . Goldman adds Portuguese lyrics to this, which he sings quite poignantly.

The play is very tongue in cheek and you just cannot take it seriously. Elise is portrayed as an absolute caricature until the very end, when she is dying. All of a sudden she becomes a real person. This is an interesting dramatic choice. Is the rest of her performance/characterization, just a memory, therefore the stylization–is it her parting that is so precious and heartbreaking for Sbig, that the way Elise is presented must be transformed to drive the point home?

In addition to this musical montage, there are projections onto a screen, which serve as backdrop, set and character. Visions of war, as well as clips and/or references to films such as CASABLANCA, SCHINDLER’S LIST and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK are made.  If you know these movies and the operas, this musical is a lot of fun. The older Sbig, breaks the 4th wall and speaks to the audience as narrator, recounting his past. Cláudio Goldman plays the younger Sbig, and he shows remarkable versatility with the opera selections and the more popular music of the show.fur elise

If one is not that familiar with the music, POUR ELISE provides a ‘taste’ of opera without the grandiosity of a full orchestra, stratospheric high notes (all the soprano’s parts are transposed down), ears being pinned back by the sound (it is all artificially amplified) or 3-4 hours trying to understand a foreign language.

Kudos to Mr. Goldman and Flavio de Souza for blending the erudite and popular, and serving it up in one hour full of laughs, yet with reverence for the immigrant and Jewish experience.

See POUR ELISE: Um amor inesquecível at Teatro Folha at Shopping Higienópolis. http://patiohigienopolis.com.br/teatro/78-pour-elise

Ainadamar: Breaking the Spanish Silence

Some 80 years ago Spain was being torn to shreds from within. The Spanish Civil war, of 1936, saw the deaths of many, including Federico Garcia Lorca, probably the most important playwright since the Golden Age’s Calderon de la Barca. Lorca was shot by the Falange, along with thousands of others, and thrown into an unmarked grave in Granada. For years Spaniards have keep silent about these crimes (on both sides). It is only in the 21st century, a generation after Franco died, that the silence has been broken.

Novels about the “disappeared”, demands for the exhumation of bodies, and actual public discussion about the Franco era, started to emerge over the last 12 years. Curiously, the composer of Ainadamar, which is about Lorca’s execution, told from the perspective of his friend/colleague, Margarita Xingu, hails from another country in which dissidents were disappeared and children given away. Osvaldo Golijov does not choose to compose or write about Argentina, but about Spain, and specifically about Lorca. He personalizes this tragedy by focusing on Lorca, but this is the story of many, and it’s about time that the world hears it.

Ainadamar, in the Opera Philadelphia production (originally mounted in Granada, Spain), is a tightly woven musical, dance and theatrical experience. The set and the projected video and stills greatly enhance and complement the score. Most of the cast comes from Spain, and the passion and spirit shines through. This is of cultural and historical significance—this generation of singers and dancers were not under Franco’s rule—yet they are able to participate in a retelling of Lorca’s execution as if they were present. Their bodies and voices resonate with Lorca and their countrymen’s memories.

Vocal highlights of this performance are María Hinojosa Montenegro, who sang Margarita Xingu, and Alfredo Tejada, the flamenco singer. Ms. Hinojosa voice has a rich and beautiful timbre, and her singing is clear and strong throughout. (Of note, the Spanish singers were amplified, something that is not quite acceptable in American opera houses). In addition, Ms. Hinojosa is especially adept at coloring her voice to reflect the necessary emotion. The cante jondo by Afredo Tejada is spectacular and really brings a raw Andalusian/ gypsy feel to the piece. A stunning scene is the death – in which the gunshots contribute to the rhythm of a dance of zapateado. Spanish music, popular and classical, has always been about rhythm, about dance. Underlying the lyricism of this opera, the rhythm of Andalusia pulsates in the dancers’ feet and in the percussion in the orchestra.

Golijov depicts an imaginary Granada, an Ainadamar, through tone, while the production team uses old newspaper articles, photos of Lorca and friends, and videos of nature to set the backdrop of the drama. The physical scene and the music are not the Granada one visits in Spain, where the blend of Byzantium and mozarabe meet, in centuries old romantic architecture, inhabited by both royal and ordinary ghosts and 21st century folks, but Golijov’s interpretation. Nevertheless, it works. There is a tension from the opening number, in which 5 female dancers in pink/purple dresses dance in front of the stones that are soon covered with water—symbolizing the fountain of tears. This same montage is repeated at the end of the opera, marking the end of this journey through Margarita Xingu’s memory and that of many unidentified Spaniards and their descendants. The silence has been broken.

¿Qué pasó en Chile? (What Happened in Chile?)

El año en que nací  (The Year that I was Born) by Argentine playright, Lola Arias, showcases the stories of parents and grandparents during the Pinochet dictatorship.  The actors (not all professionals) are the sons and daughters born between 1971-1989. I was fortunate to attend a live performance on January 19, 2014 in Philadelphia. This production was sponsored by FRINGE ARTS. Here is a trailer from another production:

The piece is more “testimonial” than a drama in the traditional sense. It weaves real stories of the actors’ families in a tapestry of representational and presentational scenes. Rather than a realistic narrative or a stylized dramatization, depicted behind a fourth wall, it is a series of vignettes, and sometimes makes  use of storytelling, rather than role-playing.

The production exploits modern technology and audio-visual effects. The play is performed in Spanish (the native language of all the performers) with English supertitles projected above the stage. A camera/projection system is rigged in order to enlarge and project authentic newspaper articles, photographs and other items onto a large screen. Additional props include student desks, chairs, lockers, electric guitars and amps, food, tables, desks and a bicycle.

The strength of El año en que nací is its ability to impart so much factual information about Chile during that era in a non-judgmental fashion.  The cast includes people of various social classes and ideologies, which would clash in any real life confrontation. It was part of the director’s/creator’s vision to feature such diversity.

One of the most effective techniques employed in the play was the “line up,” which was used a few times.  Characters were asked to line up chronologically according to their ages, with respect to political ideology (left to right), social class and skin color.  It became evident how ridiculous some of these attempts to classify were, and how biased and/or nuanced these distinctions could be. For example, is someone more “left/right” because of what he/she believes, or because he/she followed orders and killed a lot of people in the name of said ideology? Rather than tell us this directly, or use a more heavy handed or didactic approach, they depicted this polemic in the “line up.” The “line up”, the protest and the eating scene are the “stories within a story/play within a play” or the representational acting.In other instances, the acting is presentational. The fourth wall is broken and the actors present or seem to tell their stories directly to the audience.

The manner of storytelling had a certain detachment and was not overtly emotional or melodramatic. There were some jokes but rarely does one feel the sadness or devastation that surely these family members experienced. An exception is the highly charged protest scene. The fourth wall is in place and we are transported to the streets of Chile.  Water gun wielding police, sirens, protestors waving placards, chairs flying–it all results in a loud big cacophony of sound and motion. The audience senses the confusion and danger of such protests through this depiction. Later, a particularly poignant moment was when one of the cast revealed that her mother had stopped speaking to her because of this play. At that instant we are stunned with the gravity of the situation–those years were so groundshaking and the legacy of the period still impacts young Chileans today to the point that participating in a theatrical work about it would estrange a mother and daughter.

El año en que nací left me wanting to research the newspapers mentioned in one of the first stories: “Patria y Libertad” and “Puro Chile”. The play gave me more insight into what these families had endured under Pinochet, and how Chile has since developed. The election of Michele Bachelet seems to have been good for Chile–yet Chileans are very insecure about the future. The play  itself is a process–the stories change as the politics change,  and the actors discover more about their family histories. The script changes the next time around. So only “time will tell.”  Perhaps, this is the most profound message of El año en que nací–that history is personal, and not set in stone or paper. People’s ideas and memories are always morphing in tandem with circumstances and perspectives on historical events. The Pinochet era meant one thing to him, and another to her, and the meaning transforms as life transforms us.