THE PRAYING MANTIS
Buffalo Theatre Ensemble
at Bailiwick Repertory
Mimosa blossoms perfuming moonlit haciendas. Stolen kisses amid the riot of carnival. A serenade of guitars, the foreplay of castanets, a hurried unloosing of lace mantillas and leather chaps. Our stereotypes of the Spanish-speaking south invariably evoke hot blood.
But their own self-portraits are a different story. One of Spain's great dramatic exports, Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, conjures up a hothouse of repressed sexuality that seethes and finally explodes with its carnal contradictions. Likewise in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude: the pious wife's vow of chastity wreaks endless misery. And in Chilean playwright Alejandro Sieveking's dark comedy The Praying Mantis, virtue creates its own vicious reward when a family's false purity turns rancid.
Sieveking, who sought exile in Costa Rica after the 1973 CIA coup that murdered Salvador Allende and put the torturer Pinochet in power, returned to Chile four years ago with his collaborator/wife, Belgica Castro, to continue his battle of the boards. The 1966 Praying Mantis, like Sieveking's later plays, attacks a Chilean middle class that long ago turned hypocrisy into murder.
But with its earthy humor and fairy-tale inevitability, Mantis needn't be savored only as political allegory. The story is gripping enough. Sieveking introduces Juan, a stranger in a natty white suit, into a large Victorian house located in Talcahuano in southern Chile. This young bank clerk believes he has entered a house of mourning; in fact it's a respectable cesspool presided over by three sisters, Llalla, Lina, and Adela, Juan's fiancee. Llalla and Lina are now subjects of scandal because each has supposedly murdered her suitor, supposedly in self-defense. Betrothed to and formally in love with the one sister not in mourning, Juan unwittingly falls in with the family's worst homicidal traditions.
Prim and salacious, Llalla and Lina first suspect Juan is also a detective; later they nervously but seductively tumble out the details of their little murders--crimes their relatives in the courts managed to hush up. When they're not needling each other about what each one's dead suitor called the other sister ("necrophagic" is one of the more telling epithets), Llalla and Lina fuss and fawn over Juan, ask him to admire their pointless wedding gowns, and whenever Adela leaves the room, separately seek to seduce him.
As hungry for life as the youngest sister in Bernarda Alba, Adela, dressed appropriately in red, aches to flee this stuffy mansion--any way she can. Desperate for even a brief happiness to hold onto for the rest of her life, Adela asks Juan to rob his bank so they can escape Talcahuano and travel--she envisions one exotic travel poster after another.
Still fresh from the outside world,
Juan has simpler tastes than the sisters and legitimate fears he still can't quite fathom. His great joy is to dive into the ocean and joyously return to the sun, but he always feels like a "wet idiot" when he surfaces--and he feels just as disoriented when he hears Adela recite a creepy poem, "The Abysmal Devourer," at the end of the first act. Then there's Aparicio, the hitherto-hidden father. Clad in rags, with tassled ropes hanging from his wrists, this former foundry owner denounces his daughters as greedy "ghosts." He wants to kill himself--or, like Adela, to run away. But he admits that his suitcase is empty, prompting Lina to fire back the play's one line so gratuitously literary it's out of character: "Don't get surrealistic with me."
Most tantalizing is the fifth inhabitant of this claustrophobic household--the unseen sister. From the heights of their virginal purity, the seen sisters revile this Teresa, calling her a deformed monster--an insect, a praying mantis who is mad prophet, maneater, and (supposedly) the real killer of their lovers. As if to substantiate the monster theory, the sisters hurl a live chicken into the secret room.
But Aparicio sees Teresa as a "saint" and "angel" whose holy birth killed his unworthy wife; he, too, says she's praying--to God. Juan, caught in the midst of these jarring explanations, hears screams and moans coming from behind Teresa's elaborately carved wooden door. The contradictions naturally disturb and intrigue him; of course he's drawn to the one sister who hasn't tried to entrap him. His Pandora-like temptation ends Mantis on the note of horror we've been teased into expecting all along, but not quite in the way we anticipated.
It's tempting to imagine this madonna/whore Teresa in any number of roles--as Kafka's bogeywoman, who keeps respectable folk in sexual thrall; as the antidote to stultifying tradition; as the reflection of a true purity that can delight men far more than the sisters' blatant propriety; or as simply the spooky, melodramatic demon, who lurks in sealed rooms like Rochester's wife in Jane Eyre. But allegory mongering isn't necessary to enjoy Sieveking's cryptic, delicious hothouse tragedy.
Though not as sinister as the script suggests, Mantis in this production is cleanly interpreted by the Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, an Equity company connected with the College of DuPage that's making its Chicago debut. Director' Craig Berger's staging nicely manages to balance Mantis's self-conscious, campy humor, a la A Arsenic and Old Lace, against its occasional naturalistic impulse to play the moment. Jon Gantt's elegant drawing-room set--settee complete with antimacassars, fully functioning grandfather clock, and burnished walnut portals--is both all there and, with its black velvet backdrop, mysteriously open-ended.
The acting too is both solid and suggestive. As the rouged and simpering Llalla, Elizabeth Muckley can mince and wheedle like any affected, dithering ninny--and still seem a witch in white muslin. (Though the time is the present, Caryn Weglarz's costumes are strictly belle epoque, implying the sisters are stuck in time.) As dark-eyed Lina, Julie Lemick ogles and sears and yet shows just how much Lina has forgotten how to feel. If the sisters weren't wearing their abortive wedding white, they'd pass for young black widows. Though too young for Aparicio, Robert Riner does manage to convey the angry, broken patriarch, a downtrodden character recalling the father in the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast."
Andrew May, an ex-Chicagoan now with the Cleveland Play House (where he played Juan in the American premiere of Mantis), hilariously milks the lover's awkward bewilderment and disastrous curiosity; in a role that's mainly reactions, May punches home Juan's craving for the kind of selfless passion he won't get from Adela. Lisa Marie Schultz brings that character a carping, predatory sensuality you know will make the unseen Teresa even more appealing.
When Mantis comes full circle, Juan's final, gorgeous poetry ("The stars were failing in all directions!") bitingly contrasts with the finale of the first act, Adela's morbid little poem. By the end Sieveking has made it painfully clear who the real praying mantis is, savagely skewering the middie-class sexuality of the hidebound Chile he knows so well.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.