Cuba’s Capital Amid Theater Galore

By Yael Prizant

From the play "Talco" by Argos Teatro.

HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 1 — The past weekend in Havana was a theatre lovers’ paradise.  With 36 shows offered in three days, the fiercest critique was that it was impossible to see everything.  Choosing what to see, and when to see it, might be the trickiest part of the 14th Havana Theatre Festival, which runs through November 6th.

Each evening of the 10-day long festival, more than a dozen shows are offered throughout the city.  I decided to start with a Cuban show, Argos Teatro’s production of Talco.  Director Carlos Celdrán remounted his company’s daring and intense 2010 production with great success.

The play, by Abel González Melo, is a scathing portrait of the seediest side of Havana, replete with drugs, prostitution, and violence.   It takes place in a crumbling movie theatre managed by Máshenka La Dura, a witty transvestite expertly enacted by Waldo Franco, and Javi El Russo, a drug dealer and pimp, whose conflicting desires were deftly performed by Alexander Diaz.

Yuliet Cruz’s polished portrayal of a whore had a delicate interplay with José Luis Hidalgo, who played a wealthy client.  Alain Ortiz’s brilliant, minimalistic scenic design expressed the filth and confinement of the piece.  A cinema wall with one central door to a filthy little room, a small window, and a telephone were all the audience needed to locate these sordid lives.

Manolo Garriga’s lighting framed the action perfectly and, along with Denis Peralta’s dynamic sound design, firmly located the play at the edge of Centro Habana.  The packed house responded to the layers of humor and angst in this dark production with a rousing standing ovation.

Teatro de la Utopía and “El Baile”

Next I saw the work of one of Cuba’s most celebrated playwrights, Abelardo Estorino.  Presented by Teatro de la Utopía from Cuba’s Piñar del Rio province, El baile was gracefully directed by Reinaldo León.  The play tells the story of Nina and the two men in her life, her husband and her lover.

"El Baile" by Teatro de la Utopía.

Set in Nina’s dilapidated mansion, this expressionistic, non-linear production accentuated the combination of nostalgia, memory, and actuality in Estorino’s descriptive text.  Nina is clearly trapped in this location, surrounded by old photographs and souvenirs, the lifeless items she relies on to define her existence.

The stage directions were often made part of the dialogue in this production, a thoughtful choice that made the audience acknowledge the artificiality of Nina’s world.  Animated, precise gestures and stunningly choreographed dances by José Miguel Castillo (to original music by Ricardo Pérez) created a surreal world outside of time.

Although sometimes melodramatic, actress Yuliet Montes’ flexible vocal inflexions and orchestrated movements kept Nina at once present and distant.  Distinct contrasts in Nina’s relationships were seen through Raúl Capote’s convincing depiction of Conrado’s inability to express his feelings and Frank Ledesma’s light and original portrayal of Fabrizio.  Vivid body language and the play’s poetic text were artfully combined in this generally appealing production.

Si vas a sacar un chuchillo, USAlo / If you’re gonna pull a knife, USEit at the Teatro Trianón, was a complex and hyper-creative mixture of stage imagery and language.  Using text from four Samuel Beckett plays, this piece depicts (among other things) oil spill contamination, mermaids from Ulysses, a floating island of plastic bottles and the breakup of an oil worker and an actress from Disneyworld.

Presented simultaneously in Spanish and English (without much direct translation), this exceptional non-realistic piece represented modern linguistic confusions and the tensions between opposing poles: a mythical mermaid and the real horror of oceanic pollution, or the indestructibility of plastic refuse and the possibility of reinventing ourselves.

The imaginative work of extremely physical performers Elizabeth Doud and Carlos Caballero, artfully directed by Teatro El Público founder Carlos Díaz, made this U.S./Cuba collaboration profound.

"If you’re gonna pull a knife, USEit", directed by Teatro El Público founder Carlos Díaz

It began with a witty commentary on language itself; the silence-your-cell-phone announcement was first in Russian, then six other languages, with the audience laughing by the time it was made in Spanish.  Caballero was dressed completely in black with any exposed skin covered in oil, contrasting Doud’s white mermaid, whose tail later disintegrated into a sweeping skirt.

A huge net covered in black plastic water bottles, a blow up plastic palm tree and, later, a large fish bowl full of water, were the only scenic elements used to create this island.

Ambient sounds and recorded music, by an eclectic mix of artists such as The White Stripes, Café Tacuba, and Caetano Veloso, supported the actors as they danced, loved, fought, and learned.

In the context of difficult communication, Beckett lines like, “We’re not beginning to mean something?” and “You can’t follow me” took on concentrated layers of meaning.

At one point, as Kurt Weill’s “Youkali” played, audience members seated on stage were asked to dance, first with the performers, then with each other.  They did so, and continued to do so even when the performers were off seeking other participants.

The song, about a paradise at once near but far away, suggested not only Cuba and Miami, but our relationships to own personal utopias.  This is just one example of the many ways this insightful, intelligent piece of theatre, bravely presented by FUNDarte, avoids closure and provokes urgent yet ongoing contemplation.

For more information on the Havana Theater Festival including the program visit their official website.