The program planned by Casa de las Américas for Mayo Teatral 2012, the Latin American and Caribbean Theater season,...
It is not necessary that one must believe that every past time was better in order to wish a quick return to five or six decades ago. That was precisely the sensation experienced by some Havana residents when imagining what it would be like to meet a certain man of letters – Cuba’s most important dramatic playwright, to be more exact – if they would have bumped into him while strolling around the city’s streets.
Luckily, spring has its peculiarities and while those persons invent their meeting with Virgilio Piñera, the Cuban capital brings us that same opportunity during this intoxicating month of May.
Thus, three weekend stagings brought back the poet, the dramatist, and the narrator. We were able to walk alongside Piñera on the streets of Habana Vieja, near the sea in Vedado and along one of the avenues that divide the urban center.
The itinerary could have been any other, but this program planned by Casa de las Américas for Mayo Teatral 2012, the Latin American and Caribbean Theatre season, allowed for an unusual way to know Piñera: through the eyes of Cuban actors and directors from the 21st century who participated in the tribute to his one-hundredth birth anniversary and who brought the Piñera Cycle to life.
The first appointment was at the theater of the National Museum of Fine Arts, located only meters away from Paseo del Prado.
A few minutes before 7:00pm the place was bursting with expectation, and just when night began to fall Virgilio appeared onstage dressed as a Jesuit. Un jesuita de la literatura (A Jesuit of Literature) was the name given to the story presented as a play, this time mounted by well-known director Carlos Díaz. Osvaldo Doimeadiós, who interpreted this monolog, monopolized the full attention of all the spectators for about an hour.
This actor, whose name powerfully attracts attention each time it appears on a bill, is well-known for his dominion of dramatic art, his broaching of humor, his versatility and his interpretations of well-loved characters such as Josefina la Viajera or Santa Cecilia. However, no previous experience dispelled the surprise of being in contact with a relatively unknown text.
This story remained unpublished when death suddenly took its author. At the end of the eighties, Doimeadiós decided to adapt it to the theater with Leonardo de Armas in the leading role of Un jesuita… This time, once more Doimeadiós trusted the director of Teatro El Público to create a theater show based on his previous version, in which the author, his play and the surroundings start a dialogue.
This version of Un jesuita... includes several poems, texts in prose and even an unpublished letter. In this way there is an attempt to create an intimate map of the author, with the purpose of honoring the memory of Virgilio by making him share with his public.
In Un jesuita..., the writer struggles between the reality that tethers him and his typewriter, where he introduces memories, passions and passages of his life. The personal conflict becomes a group context of daily life, absurd to a certain extent - as the majority of his works have been described by specialists. The intellectual then ponders over that same reality while chatting with his alter ego and, one after the other, is interrupted by charismatic characters.
Perhaps it was the acting technique employed by Doimeadiós, the use of lights, the personification of the character; maybe the re-reading of original texts or the soberness of the set design... but none of it fully explains why Un jesuita... pleases us. In the end, the power of seduction of an artist on stage can seldom be explained solely with rational arguments.
Behind each one of those explanations is the chemistry, the empathy, the magic of the precise word, the universe that opens to our eyes and ears, the reunion of an ordinary habanero with a controversial author, that journey to the dramatist’s inner world, someone whose works the majority of those present have never seen directed or rehearsed. That was the evening’s best asset.
Just when Havana is dressing up for its liveliest evening of the week, El Ciervo Encantado Hall is completely full except for the small space reserved for Cuban actor Alexis Díaz de Villegas to perform Piñera’s monologue El trac.
Most surely it would not have been the same to appreciate the piece which seated properly on one of the benches placed before the stage. The truth is that watching it standing - leaning on one of the steps that lead to the more distant seats, holding one’s head high to be able to see the actor, making the effort to follow his movements up there, in front – instead of hindering the enjoyment of the artistic event, makes one want to capture every gesture, every sound, every silence of the artist. Could Virgilio have imagined that several decades later Cuban mortals would throng to watch the performance of El trac? Did Alexis Díaz perceive it when he was showing off his virtuosity?
But it is not the hard work of the spectators to watch this piece that makes it far-reaching. It is the way in which it tells of the ups and downs, the efforts, the intricacies of stage art; not of those more worldly, earthly, daily ones, but of the sensibility, the agony, the emotions that the stage demands from its artists.
That’s the way it is transmitted by Alexis Díaz and the peculiar tone of voice he employs. One is surprised by the game he plays with words and the sounds he draws from them, turning them into beings liberated from their usual meaning. The irony in his sobs, the bitterness in his laughter and the pain that emanates from his body before each “trac!” seem to have emerged from the bowels of the stage. His metamorphosis in each face observing him, the experimentation with his body, with each reaction, cannot be expressed in a few lines.
El trac does not disguise its points of contact with Un jesuita... This daring staging by Díaz de Villegas, just like the former, proposes a search of the core of literary and theatrical creation. In the same way, it also seduces the actor who, as in the case of Doimeadiós, shows his high technical level.
El trac does not search for pretexts in any story. Instead, it finds support in a fragmented and seemingly disjointed structure with the purpose of blowing up any mold, a form of representing the crises of the contemporary human being with a space for verses by Lope de Vega or Calderón de la Barca.
The performer must transcend the space to which he has been “confined” and burst into the spectator’s space to provoke him/ her. It has been said that Piñera’s purpose with this, his last completed play, was to show the inner world of an actor – or of a common person, if you will – in the face of life, prose, verse and the theater, in a game that deprives him of any mask, weapon or defense.
However, all would have been in vain if that “trac!” would not have sounded in the hall like a muscle in tension, a binding rope, a breaking stem, together with the ovation that acknowledged a human being lacking a stage design, discreetly dressed, practically nude...
Sunday afternoon, a family afternoon according to custom; it couldn’t have been a better occasion for penetrating the ins and outs of a Cuban family. Aire frío (Cold Air), a play that since late last year was being spoken about, is presented in a hall that again is crowded, under the direction of Carlos Celdrán and performed by the Argos Teatro company. Also a timely occasion to approach great themes such as love, power and death.
Going after the faithful representation of the original text is not intended now. The explicit statement of a time in which the plot takes place has been discarded “in order to set the action in any Cuban period,” according to its director. This, of course, with the purpose of reclaiming behaviors, characterizations and “new echoes” of characters created in the late 1950s.
And, like in Un jesuita..., the way in which Virgilio took on his reality and distorted it to transform it into black humor, irony, mockery or satire appears here. But beyond his personal conflict, “Virgilio examines – and makes us examine – his family hell – our hell, the hell of us all” –as told by Celdrán.
Again the public too numerous for the space, the eagerness that May produces regarding the theater and – why not? – fate, can keep away that same spectator from the usual seat in front of the stage. Experiencing the play from the cabin, from the place where lights are manipulated and sound is produced grants the occasion a different dimension. It enables one to notice the excellent lighting design by Manolo Garriga, indicating the passage of time but not the evolution of the characters, the stage design by Alain Ortiz in a house where nothing changes year after year, and the music by Denis Peralta, especially written for this staging.
About this story, which is the story we all share – or at least, a good many Cubans do – Virgilio wrote in the prologue to his Teatro completo (Complete Theater): “It is a piece without a plot, without a theme, without a storyline and without an outcome.” He thus conceived of this group of circumstances that leads to no end.
A reflection about the search for happiness and personal “progress” might appear overwhelming, monumental, and complex. By contrast, Aire frío entails an extraordinary simplicity in its progressive repetition of daily events: time goes by and nothing happens, everything remains the same.
And the heat, oh woe! That heat that suffocates Luz Marina, who is related – inter-textually, specialists would say – to Electra, the heroin of another top work of Cuban theater, also by Piñera, involves all those who surround her. Everyone, including Luz Marina, must admit that the solution to suffocation is not a simple electric fan. And at each moment, in every word or gesture, Piñera is present, perhaps smiling sarcastically, in force, perennial, lucid.
As he himself had foreseen, those characters, incapable of communicating with one another, misunderstood and dehumanized, had to share the climax moment in darkness. Indeed: in darkness due to a blackout a few minutes before the end of the play. But this small incident did not intimidate Luz Marina, efficiently played by Yuliet Cruz, or Oscar (Alexander Díaz) or Enrique (José Luis Hidalgo), or Luis (Waldo Franco), or Ángel (Pancho García) – blind at that point – nor did it affect Ana (Verónica Díaz), dying in front of the longed-for electric fan.
It would seem that, from the darkness, Piñera was pointing a finger, saying, as he had done in 1960: “Then, if that is it, I am absurd and existentialist, but in the Cuban way.”
Another week went by...
In case that habanero – eager to find, like Aeneas, the essences of his city, of his world – was able to escape the routine and tiredness of a working day to join Virgilio in his stroll – the truly Cuban Virgilio, the one from these lands – the master would still be there to invite him to enjoy Los siervos (The Serfs) and La boda (The Wedding). These would round up the cycle of four plays and a choreography that, like a Pagan ritual, brought the creator back to life.
Raúl Martín, director of Teatro de La Luna and who was previously in charge of a staging of Electra Garrigó, appropriated on a Wednesday the Adolfo Llauradó Hall to share his version of La boda. This is a piece from 1957 in which the author takes as pretext the flaccid breasts of Flora, the leading female character, who shortly before her marriage makes an apparently rash decision. But this time La boda reached the public in choreographic form, based on a recreation of the well-known Wedding March and a voice in off re-reading the original text.
A few moments later Los siervos was presented, a piece that, apparently far from autobiographical references, reflects on “macro-social” aspects – to call them something – beyond easily recognizable junctures. The story of a philosopher who, attempting to transgress the status quo, invites us to meditate on Cuban society in a liberating and provocative way.
And if at this stage it would not have been possible to attend these last meetings with Virgilio, that weekend - in which the moon was closest to the Earth - had already offered the opportunity to look face to face at the most outstanding Cuban dramatist of all times.
One-hundred years are a good pretext for (re)learning about a person, a creator, about his work, and in addition, for banishing nostalgia for the past. Isn’t it perhaps equally seductive to be introduced to Virgilio Piñera by today’s Cuban artists through the visions of some of the most acclaimed stage directors of the 21st century, or together with those of us who didn’t learn about him when we should have?
Translated by Olimpia Esperanza Sigarroa Santamarina
Revised by Susana Hurlich