Thursday, March 16, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "A Tragic Cabaret" (on Rogelio Orizondo and Teatro El Público

a tragic cabaret

Rogelio Orizondo (text, with dramaturgy by Orizondo and Carlos Díaz), Antignón, un contigente Épico / Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), the performance I saw was on March 15, 2017.

Based on a very unreliable telling of Sophocles’ Antigone, the Cuban theater company Teatro El Público explores several issues of that play in the context of Cuban history, beginning, in part, with the poetry of José Martí. Yes, here two there appear to be two brothers, at once in love with each other and warring against one another (they appear naked in the earliest scenes), along with two sisters, also naked, presumably surrogates of Antigone and Ismene. 
      We might imagine the brothers a similar to Che and Fidel Castro, fighting over how the Cuban revolution should be defined; but there the similarities stop, as the company explores, in various cabaret-like skits the various elements of contemporary Cuba, the often open sexuality, the macho-like battles played out on the streets (performed deliciously, in this case, by two women actors, with water bottles serving as their cocks), the importance of the scout movement in government indoctrination, and, through old, grainy films, the relationship of the island’s culture to its own indoctrinations in connection with their Soviet relationships. 
       Violence and camp alternate, as the characters present their world in a kind of shadow-relationship with the tragic epic of Sophocles play, while reminding us that they are diverted by contemporary exigencies.

       The great wonder of this production is the cast, Giselda Caler, Daysi Forcade, Luis Manuel Álvarez, Roberto Espinosa, and Linnet Hernádez, in and out of dress, more often as the play proceeds, dressed in outrageous costumes that reflect their changing attitudes. Even though their Spanish was highlighted on an English-language theater light-board, those shifting values often went by so fast, that for the English-language reader, they were sometimes hard to follow.
        But the many absurd edicts and proclamations that come down from on high translate well: “Most theater directors, we learn are homosexual. Many actors are homosexual. All of the actors of Teatro El Público are homosexual,” so one of these edicts proclaims. Even the character of the beautiful Martí poem quoted in the program seems to have a gay friend, a poet who “cleans houses in order to survive” and whom the author finds “in front of the Capitol building…./ looking at, longing for (I believe) those other dumb dirty boys / who make the Zona Rosa a fun place in the city.” 
     We have only to remind ourselves of all the great Cuban gay and lesbian writers: Reinaldo Arenas, José Lezama Lima, Eduardo Machado, Virgilio Piñera, Juana María Rodríguez, Severo Sarduy, and Ana María Simo, to name only a few, to realize that despite Castro’s seeming homophobia, life in this world is far more than diverse, particularly given the island’s Spanish, Asian, African, and other roots.
       Playwright Rogelio Orizondo and director Carlos Díaz do not so much “discuss” these issues as to throw them out in the cabaret-performances as various possibilities, and probable alternatives to the tragedy behind Cuban history. If Polyneices is not permitted to be buried and Antigone is ordered to be buried alive, these sassy figures, nonetheless, transform Creon’s world in which they live. While film, we are told, is quickly censored in Cuban life, Cuban theater continues to present fresh and energized viewpoints as expressed by these excellent performers. 
     As critic Manuel García Martinez wrote of this production, “Throughout the discourse they claimed freedom and sensuality for their own personal life.” In general, the company members’ pizazz and sass made up for any of the seeming incoherencies of their tale. Like dreamy carnival performers, these theatrical hoofers made you want to believe in Cuba’s future.

Los Angeles, March 16, 2017

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