at the Greenview Arts Center
MAN OF THE FLESH
Latino Chicago Theater Company
Having to deal with change is a universal experience. In his comedy Broken Eggs (you know, what you need to make an omelet), Eduardo Machado explores the effects of displacement on a proud upper-class Cuban family, one of many that emigrated to the United States in the wake of the 1959 revolution. The occasion is the wedding of Lizette to a Jewish boy (unnamed until the last moments of the play). Lizette's first words to her younger sister, Mimi, are telling: "Pretend you come from a happy home."
Central to the tensions are the accommodations people have made between the grandeur that was Cuba--a grandeur nostalgia has elevated to mythical proportions--and the realities of a new life in the United States. Though it is now 1979, some attitudes stubbornly resist assimilation. At one end of the spectrum is Dona Manuela, drilling her granddaughter in the lore of the aristocracy: "You are a Cuban girl--never forget that." Mimi responds, "No, Grandma. I was born in Canoga Park, California, and I'm a first-generation white Hispanic-American." Undaunted, Manuela answers, "No, you're not. Memorize what I have just told you." Sonia, Manuela's daughter and the mother of the bride, still clings to fond memories of her idyllic youth with a father who spoiled her--even after she was married, he would dispatch a servant to her house every morning with her favorite breakfast. Sonia has decided that at this gathering she will win back her ex-husband, Osvaldo, who had the audacity to divorce her and marry an independent-minded Argentinean, referred to by both families only as "the whore." (Even Alfredo, Osvaldo's down-to-earth father, wonders at his son's marrying a woman he could simply have taken as a mistress--a wonderment shared by Osvaldo's Valium-gobbling sister, Miriam.) At the opposite end of the battlefield are the children of Sonia and Osvaldo--Oscar, Lizette, and Mimi. The teenage Mimi is pregnant and still undecided whether to have an abortion, and Oscar flaunts his homosexuality with the fearlessness induced by a cocaine habit. Haunting this already volatile situation is the ghost of Miriam and Osvaldo's brother, Pedro, a prodigal whose faults the Hernandez family treats in the old-fashioned manner--that is, by transparently and desperately denying them.
As the festivities proceed, diplomatic relations break down. Bitter memories surface. Miriam confesses her anger that her father thoughtlessly sent his mistress's children to the same school as his legal daughters. Osvaldo recalls his humilation at having to shop for groceries for the first time in his life at the age of 32--"I could not tell what fruit was ripe and what fruit was not. I did not know how to figure this out. In the Food King supermarket in Canoga Park, I cried! Some people stared at me . . . " When the discovery is made that there is not enough wedding cake for all the guests, Sonia nearly becomes hysterical. This faux pas--a breach of propriety to Manuela but virtually unnoticed by the groom's family--symbolizes to Sonia the end of her sheltered life.
Machado has packed a phenomenal amount of information into a remarkably uncluttered narrative, and Teatro Vista's production, under the sharp-edged direction of Henry Godinez, is brisk and funny without ever slipping into farce. The cast deliver uniformly excellent performances, each character emerging as a whole and sympathetic human being. Dominating the stage, in a clever bit of gender-blind casting, is John Carlos Seda as Manuela. Her unflappable gravity is perfectly contrasted with Marilyn Dodds Frank's greyhound nervousness as Sonia, and Maricela Ochoa's feline indolence as Miriam. As the hapless Osvaldo, Noah Cuellar Navar paints a sensitive portrait of a man doomed to fall short of others' expectations. Gustavo Mellado's Alfredo is an old lord resigned to the reduction of his world to "a piece of real estate." Margret Oquendo makes Mimi the picture of adolescent resentment at having to shoulder responsibility for a life she never knew. Edward Torres's Oscar is recognizably a boy whose maturity has been thwarted, who clings to such romantic notions as joining the communists, about whom he knows only that they are unlike his parents. As Lizette, the willowy Jennifer Ford has little to do but look beautiful and embarrassed, but does so with grace and dignity.
Breaking Eggs marks Teatro Vista's debut in their spacious new quarters at the Greenview Arts Center. Sound designer Jeff Webb has created a witty score, ostensibly played by a band in an adjoining ballroom, which includes both "Guantanamera" and "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Designers Rob Martin and Martha Sanders have come up with a hilariously ornate set as pink and melting as a mango Popsicle.
If Machado's Broken Eggs offers up-to-the-minute Chekhovian analysis, Octavio Solis's Man of the Flesh is a fairly straightforward though farcical morality fable. It is November 2, the Day of the Dead--a Mexican holiday that resembles a carnival, with celebrants dressing up as supernatural creatures and dining on pastries in the shape of skulls. On this day the profligate Juan Tenorio--who has not impregnated every woman in his community only because he prefers virgins--has been sent by his landscaper father to help prepare the grounds of the wealthy Downey family for a costume ball. Although his late mother used to work for the Downeys, Juan has never seen any of them. At sight of their youngest daughter, Anne, he promptly falls in love--real love, Juan insists. But he doesn't reckon with his comrades' disbelief, the aggressiveness of the other women in the Downey household, or the watchful intervention of his mother's ghost.
Written in a pastiche of English and Spanish that should present no problems for monolingual audience members, Solis's script features readily available puns and one-liners, as when Luis parodies the "stinking badges" speech from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Juan's sidekick, Fracas, warns him, "You're caught between a rock and a hard-on." The fastidious Luis snaps, "Wake up and smell the chorizo!" There's also some satirical social commentary in the Downeys' attitudes toward their Latino groundskeepers. In what Mr. Downey obviously thinks is a friendly gesture, he asks Luis "Ko-mo ess-tah?" while his wife and oldest daughter twitter over the possibility of a fling with the servants. "You're fiery, passionate, and could satisfy any woman you come near," Mrs. Downey says after her tumble in the hay with Juan. "That's why I want you off my property." Even Juan's grisly punishment at the hands of the dead is humorous.
Under Carlos Sanz's spirited direction, Latino Chicago Theater's production fairly dances. Michael Ramirez gives the reprehensible Juan a boyish charm; he's ably supported by Frank Rosario as the virtuous Luis, Gregorio Gomez as the mischievous Fracas, and Lauro Lopez as the beleaguered Don Diego Tenorio. Sonia Galen is a sweet and demure Anne, but she's overshadowed by the other, livelier members of the Downey household: Laurie Martinez as the matriarch, Maureen Gallagher as the older sister, and Justina Machado as the maid. The portly Horacio Sanz plays Downey paterfamilias. At a fiesta de los muertos, the dead are very important--in a curtain speech, Sanz dedicated this production to the Chicago actors "who are not in the theater tonight--or didn't reserve tickets, anyway." Representing the underworld are Susana Aquilar as the spectral Madre Concepcion, Michael Torres as a jolly avenging angel (identified in the program as Calaca Flaca--literally, "skinny skeleton"), and a bevy of masked revelers.
One often thinks of "ethnic" theater groups doing plays dealing with the social problems of the community or researching its mythological "roots." Certainly there's nothing wrong with these topics--for any theater--but it's still refreshing to see Chicago's two major Latino companies offering comedies for a change. After all, laughter cuts across the bounds of all languages and cultures.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rachel Smith Payne.