Sunday, July 12, 2009

Latino plays work with all distractions

A Gringo Encounters Latino Theater
By MARK RABINE, 10 July 2009

The theater at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts is not state of the art. Actors have to compete with sounds from the street, voices in the lobby and footsteps, pounding footsteps, overhead.

The subtitle machine sometimes works; sometimes it doesn’t; and sometimes, when it does, the subtitles are out of synch with what is being said on stage. The folding chairs are fine – as long as the first act is not too long.

But don’t let that dissuade you, especially if you speak somewhat fluent Spanish (or even if you are taking intermediate Spanish for the fourth time), from taking in a play or two from Encuentro de Teatro, playing this weekend at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art. If the first night is any indication, the failings of the theater are overcome by El Teatro; specifically Gustavo Ott’s “Fotomatón” and “Orinoco” by Emilio Carballido.

“Fotomatón” can be called a family drama; one that takes place in a morgue, not a living room. Fernando, a futbalista, is shot and killed as he was about to make the winning goal. As his corpse waits for the autopsy, Fernando presents five or six characters from his family who each take a turn on stage with monologues about their lives, their loves and, most often, their failures.

Felipe Tuturi from the Mexican theater group Tutiatro plays Fernando and the family members with zest, humor and a sure feel for the absurd situations we keep returning to. If he does not draw his characters with the subtle dexterity of Anna Deavere Smith or Sarah Jones, he nonetheless brings each to life with enough inventiveness and enough pathos to keep his audience involved.

To keep the play moving between monologues, Tuturi changes costume on stage while slides of futbol and violence in Latin America are shown on a big screen behind him. Like Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaños, and Amores Perros by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Fotomatón comes out of Latin America’s urban wastelands, ravaged by more than 30 years of economic pillaging known as “the Washington Consensus.”

Despite the humor and the magic of theater, Ott’s realism could not be further from the socialist realism of the 1930s or the magical realism of the 1960s. This is a gritty, violent, seething and cynical realism where love is the last thing on everybody’s list. Well done.

“Orinoco” is a lighter (somewhat) piece written by Mexican playwright, Emilio Carballido and performed by Hector Zavala and Carlos Barrera (“La Tropa”) of San Francisco. It is the story of two women on a boat escaping angry men. Or maybe they are two performers simply on the way to their next gig when they suddenly find they are (almost) alone.

Uncertainty plays a big role in the play as both the players and the audience catch themselves constantly wondering who these women are, how they got here and where they’re going. But uncertainty is also the Orinoco, the river pulling them deeper and deeper into a “jungle.” How the pair navigates this central uncertainty is the theme of the play.

Of the polarities operating between Fifi and Mina, it is poetic optimism of the young versus the world weariness of the old that gives the script life and depth. Although the play doesn’t need any more complications, Zavala and Barrera add a new twist, another uncertainty. Are these men playing women, or men playing men playing women? Are Mina and Fifi transvestites, and if so, does the play read or play differently? There is comedy, tragedy, hope, despair, some poetry, a little dada, a lot of rum, and in the end, who knows?

Being a gringo with fading Spanish skills that were not that good to begin with, I found myself lost on the Orinoco. Unfortunately it took me too long to find out I was supposed to be lost, and because of my language difficulties, I missed alot of the philosophical interplay between the two women. Missed a lot of the laughs too. Between the two plays, Orinoco depends more on the language; it needs to be heard to be truly understood – or if not understood, at least appreciated.

Fotomatón, as a series of connected monologues, obviously depends on language quite a bit also, but the language is not as abstract, nor is the situation as fantastic. Or maybe Tuturi knows how to speak a Spanish that even gringos think they understand.

If you’re looking for an unusual encounter with contemporary Latino theater, Encuentro de Teatro, is the place to be this weekend. Like the boat in Orinoco, the theater at the cultural center has seen better days, but it is a stage; and when you give good players with good scripts a stage, good things happen. Theater-goers who speak what passes for an acceptable Spanish will have few problems. Beginning Spanish students should check to see if the subtitle machine is working, or, better, stay home and study.

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