In Pedro Páramo, magic realism isn’t hocus-pocus | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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In Pedro Páramo, magic realism isn’t hocus-pocus

Cuba's Teatro Buendía adapts a landmark Mexican novel for the Latino Theatre Festival.

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Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

—T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

Magical realism? A fake category. An empty construct. Now you see it, now you don't. The hallucinatory realities described by writers like Gabriel García Márquez are only magical if you first posit a real reality defined by, say, linear time and three-dimensional space. Then, of course, anything that operates outside of those limits is going to look otherworldly. Magical.

But we all know that there are more things on heaven and earth than can be measured with a stopwatch or a yardstick. And that just because something disobeys the ordinary laws of cause and effect doesn't mean it isn't there or can't happen. So it's not magical realism that's magical, in fact, but the allegedly real realism, because real realism depends on magical thinking—i.e., on maintaining the artifice of the everyday by ignoring big chunks of what's true.

Consider Pedro Páramo, an exquisite new stage adaptation of which is being performed by Cuba's Teatro Buendía as part of the Latino Theatre Festival at Goodman Theatre. The short novel by Mexican writer Juan Rulfo is a founding document of the nonexistent genre known as magical realism. Published in 1955, it established Rulfo, alongside deadpan Argentinian genius Jorge Luis Borges, as a bedrock inspiration for the likes of Márquez.

The book starts with on-again, off-again narrator Juan Preciado telling us (in Margaret Sayers Peden's 1994 translation from the Spanish), "I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there." Juan's dying mother has demanded that he promise to go back to that little Mexican town and make Páramo pay for all the "years he put us out of his mind." A rather listless sort, Juan doesn't at first plan to fulfill the promise. "But before I knew it," he says, "my head began to swim with dreams and my imagination took flight. Little by little I began to build a world around a hope centered on the man called Pedro Páramo."

Juan enters Comala to find it "hushed." He encounters his mother's girlhood friend Eduviges, who lets him stay at her ruin of a house. But soon enough Juan comes to understand that Eduviges is dead. And so is practically everybody else he meets. Comala isn't just a ghost town but a town of ghosts.

As Juan is slowly being absorbed into Comala's phantom society, another narrative unfolds: the tale of Pedro Páramo himself.

It's a romance, of sorts, though a far from pretty one. We learn that Juan and his mother aren't the only Comalans with claims against Páramo. The patron of the Media Luna, the biggest ranch in the area, Pedro is a great, stingy, mendacious monster who never misses a chance to cheat an associate or deflower a virgin. The whole town is in his thrall, subject to his corrupting influence as well as the depredations of his sociopathic son Miguel—ironically, the only one of his many bastards he's willing to acknowledge. Yet there's a less hard—if not exactly softer—side to Pedro, embodied in his love for a mad local girl, Susana San Juan. The destructive, weirdly penitential relationship between these two dark souls is the heart of Pedro Páramo.

Rulfo's story is like Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol without the redemption, and like Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology—a collection of poems written from the points of view of people buried in a small Illinois cemetery—without the nice distinction between life and afterlife. Rulfo's reality allows for a free conflation of bodies and souls, places and times. It isn't magic, but a simple apprehension of the resonances that wait in all things.

Between the staging by Flora Lauten and a remarkably faithful script by Raquel Carrió, Teatro Buendía does a marvelous job of capturing those resonances. Lauten makes the unification of worlds visible primarily through the deployment of long swaths of sheer, white, gauzy cloth. In its most striking use, the cloth covers a row of actors, turning them at once into wraiths and into the hilly Mexican terrain the wraiths inhabit. She's evocative even without the cloth, however, creating creepy-gorgeous tableaux and moving images throughout Pedro Páramos's 90 music-punctuated minutes. That's something a non-Spanish speaker can be especially grateful for: inasmuch as the show is performed in Spanish with English-language supertitles, Lauten's carefully wrought images go a long way toward relieving the need to catch every word as it passes by.

Lauten is extremely fortunate in her cast, a mix of Chicago-based and Cuban actors. Among the Cubans, I was especially impressed with Sándor Menéndez—whose Juan comes across as a sweet, simple, tragic lug—and Alejandro Alfonzo, who makes clear the struggle of the poor priest condemned to serve Comala. But the local participants are often stunning. Latino Theatre Fest curator Henry Godinez makes a formidable Pedro, his sinewy build suggesting the stringy state of the patron's soul. Laura Crotte is a virtually iconic as the crone-ish Eduviges. And Charín Alvarez continues her serial seduction of Chicago audiences as Susana San Juan.

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