Teatro del Sol: Bilingual Theater in Philly

I’ve written before about La Fábrica and Teatro del Sol, and the works that they’ve produced, about Picasso, Operación Pedro Pan, and authoritarian regimes (inspired by Venezuela). These newly formed theater companies, both staged plays in Spanish and English in Philadelphia for the past few years. The last production I saw of Teatro del Sol was actually a reading of a play and I saw some of the same actors and directors in the audience and on stage  that I had seen at previous productions of La Fábrica.  I didn’t voice this to any of them at the time, but I felt that a merger would be a good idea. Joining forces would pool their creative energy, and they would not have to compete for audiences, talent and donors.

Philadelphia has a lively theater scene, with larger venues like the Walnut Street Theater and the Arden Theatre, and many smaller companies which do not have a permanent space. To be able to garner enough of an audience for theater in Spanish in a city as small as Philadelphia is a challenge enough for one company, but for even more than one?

Fortunately, the minds behind these two companies were thinking like me, and they decided to merge to form Teatro del Sol.  Spearheading this company are José Avilés, Tanaquil Márquez and Yajaira Paredes. For more information about Teatro del Sol, and what they have planned for bilingual theater,  visit their website.

Coming soon, in Abril, is the popular play, La Gringa.  Although it’s been running in New York City, I’ve never seen it. I’m looking forward to enjoying it in Philly in a few weeks.

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“Passport:” A Tour de Force of Beauty and Brutality

Passport, by Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott, is shocking. It had me on the edge of my seat for 65 minutes, as I wished that Eugenia could just be understood, and that the cruel soldier and the sadistic official just had an ounce of decency and would just show some compassion. Passport Banner Final (1)

Passport is produced by La Fábrica and plays at the The Proscenium Theatre at the Drake for the FringeArts Festival, from Sept. 12-16, 2018. The cast is comprised of Tanaquil Márquez (Eugenia), Alfonso Rey (El soldado/the soldier)  and Lorenza Bernasconi (la oficial/the official). Passport, directed by Alfonso Rey, is one of the most intense and mesmorizing productions that I have recently seen in Philadelphia.

Despite being a newly formed company (about 1 year old), the production values were high. The program, in the form of a passport, accompanied me on my journey into a world that was both familiar and unknown. The audience is treated as part of the drama, since we had our “passports” stamped as we went into the theater. We all had the proper documentation and were allowed to pass the border, but “Eugenia” was not.

Tanaquil Márquez was stellar and thoroughly convincing as Eugenia. Her acting is gripping and her delivery in Spanish, idiomatic and well projected. This is a challenging role. There is upper body nudity and the character displays many emotions. Based on this performance, Márquez deserves to be seen on the important stages of Philadelphia at least. Lorenza Bernasconi and Alfonso Rey were both compelling in their roles, making it a tight ensemble.

The set, lighting and sound were designed by Márquez and Rey and were perfect for the unfolding of this encounter, allowing the acting to be the focus. The set is almost bare but for a few realistic props and furniture, and the lighting is stark and dramatic. Especially effective was the sound design which utilized recorded music and other noises. For example, the drops of water which fell into metal buckets onstage punctuated the soundscape and the action.

To my ears, the lyricism of the script was exquisite and well delivered by the ensemble. The attempts to understand each other were like mind puzzles. I saw the opening performance at 4:00 pm which was in Spanish. (The shows alternate between Spanish and English, and there are some which are “coin toss.” You find out what language it will be in after you arrive). What makes this work so impressive is the clash between the poetry, the beauty of the language, and the violence of the situation, and how these two elements are depicted. For me personally, this has always been the hallmark of a great work of art–that Gustavo Ott was able to take something bad, an ugly dehumanizing experience and make it into this play is sublime.

Passport was written in the 1990s, but problems of migration and crossing borders are still happening. Tyrannical regimes still exist and military and other officials who cross the line between the humane and inhumane, unfortunately permeate the news every day. The mistreatment of people at the border is a current issue in our country.

Passport is a must see for those who embrace more intellectual theater, latino plays, and/or who care about the migration issues. I look forward to seeing it in English too.  Passport could be anywhere or everywhere. La Fábrica draws attention to the problems and abuses with this moving production.

Running time: 65 minutes, no intermission.

Passport plays from September 12-16, 2018, by La Fábrica at The Proscenium Theatre at the Drake.302 S Hicks St. Philadelphia, PA 19102 For more information and to purchase tickets in advance: go  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.