at the UIC Theatre
A college professor of mine used to say that good comedy makes the impossible probable. Argentine playwright Roberto M. Cossa has taken this bit of advice to heart and created a perfect gem. Ostensibly a black farce, La nona ("The Granny") focuses on a family so impossibly strained by circumstances that paradoxically the purest--as well as the basest--emotions shine through.
At first glance the family seems typically working-class. Carmelo (Gustavo Mellado) operates a small market stand that allows him to keep a modest home with his wife, Maria (Jessica duArte). Carmelo's income also supports Maria's sister Anyula (Maria Garcia), a creaky "auntie" who burdens everyone by trying not to be a burden; Carmelo's brother Chicho (John C. Seda), who has spent 20 years pretending to be a temperamental tango composer so he won't have to get a job; and Carmelo's daughter Marta (Veronica Martinez), who tells her parents she's working the night shift at a pharmacy when she comes home late.
But the biggest strain on Carmelo's pocketbook is Maria's mother, Nona (Juan Luco). She is 100 years old and has an endless appetite. The first time we see Nona she's scurrying into the kitchen (scurrying being her only means of locomotion) and invading the cupboards like a guerrilla fighter. She literally eats every piece of food onstage every time she appears, and only occasionally stops to bark out commands like "Munchies!" or "Potato chips!" When everything else is gone, she polishes off a jar of mayonnaise.
Nona's insatiable appetite drives the family to desperate measures--ultimately they sell their home, piece by piece. The most outrageous approach to the problem of Nona comes from Chicho. When Carmelo suggests that Chicho might actually have to get a job, Chicho first suggests selling Nona into prostitution, then invents an elaborate scheme to marry her off to the 80-year-old Don Francisco (Andrew Carrillo). Chicho works overtime telling each person a different set of lies about Nona, then navigating his way through his own maze of falsehoods when everyone gathers for the wedding.
La nona is a remarkable structural and conceptual achievement. The play is beautifully constructed in the tradition of classic farce: everything relates to a central dramatic purpose, and each scene ups the level of frustration and the blood pressure of the characters exponentially.
Conceptually, Cossa has taken an utterly conventional form and transformed it with the curiously unsettling and ambiguous figure of a ravenous grandmother. She is completely innocent--hunger, after all, is beyond one's control--and oblivious to the damage she's causing to those who literally feed her habit. She is even oblivious that her appetite is a problem; she gives people curious stares when they seem unwilling to give her yet another plateful of food. By making this character the driving force behind the play, Cossa pushes a rather conventional form into unexpected emotional realms. Somehow Nona is intimately connected with death. She is, after all, 100 years old, and death is the only thing that will end her hunger (a fact that does not escape her desperate family). At the same time she is impossibly youthful, full of a boundless energy and appetite.
But Nona is not simply a figure of death, or of anything else for that matter. Cossa's genius lies in never reducing her to a symbol. She is who she is, and her function in the play remains deliciously veiled. Much like the title character in Gabriel Gar- cia Marquez's "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," who washes up on the beach and somehow brings spiritual rebirth to a coastal town, Nona is a highly ambiguous creation who gently taps on the door of your psyche without ever coming in.
The burden of the play falls on Nona and Chicho, and fortunately Luco and Seda perform magnificently. Both understand the importance of a singular purpose when acting in farce: Nona wants to eat, and Chicho wants to loaf. These actors boil their characters down to essences but at the same time remain flexible enough to give them emotional depth. Luco is particularly inspired, giving Nona all the complex obscurity her character demands. His job is all the more difficult because Nona does not change a bit during the course of the play: she must remain utterly static and yet be utterly engrossing for two hours.
The rest of the cast are somewhat unresolved in their approach. Director Brian Russell seems to have encouraged them to focus on the play's pathos, especially as the family begins to disintegrate. The actors understandably seem uncomfortable, because in the context of the entire play scenes played as drama become melodrama. For example, in act two Carmelo calls a family meeting to discuss his depleted funds and the need for everyone to take a job. The scene is approached almost tragically, as if the play were commenting on the plight of the working class. But this plight is simply the result of the absurd grandmother--the situation is grotesque, not tragic. After all, this is a family who believe their hooker daughter is a pharmacist.
It's as if Russell has tried to put La nona into a contemporary urban context in order to raise "issues." As he describes the play in press materials, "Possible allusions to problems in contemporary society include the deficit and government run amok." Though the attempt to bring an explicit social conscience to this production is admirable, it reduces the play to issues it does not then adequately investigate.