Voces y Cuerpos III | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Voces y Cuerpos III


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The Latino Experimental Theater Company

at the Blue Rider Theatre

Spanish-language theater in Chicago has never attained the utter silliness of Spanish-language theater in Miami, where vaudevillian shows like El pariente Vicente draw huge crowds, nor posed the hard-nosed political questions of Pedro Monge's work in New York and the progressive Chicano theaters in southern California.

In Chicago Spanish-language theater has generally been very safe and traditional. The scripts have rarely been original, and the accents aim for the generic, the televisionlike, blurring the specific ethnic backgrounds of the cast members. Within this framework there have been some minor successes, particularly in the mid-1980s, when Ramiro Carrillo was at the helm of the Latino Chicago Theater Company.

Yet in recent months there seems to have been a renaissance of sorts in local Spanish-language theater. Rosario Vargas and her Teatro Aguijon II are drawing small but consistent audiences in the neighborhoods, and LCT has been running La Petenera for months in different locales. What has made Vargas's and LCT's work somewhat successful has been their understanding of the intended audience: in Chicago most Latinos who speak primarily Spanish are recent arrivals and on the lower end of the economic ladder.

To make Spanish-language theater possible, Vargas offers bargain prices and repertory, and introduces each show with information about the writer and the context of the work. LCT chooses to augment its target audience with non-Spanish speakers, luring them with music and dance. These presentations are ambitious but acknowledge that the Spanish-language audience is simply not very big nor, perhaps, terribly predisposed to theater. By getting a good grip on who they're performing for, both Vargas and LCT have found niches in the local scene.

The Latino Experimental Theater Company, however, hasn't quite figured out its purpose. Artistic director Miguel Lopez-Lemus is filled with ideas, but after watching Voces y cuerpos III in an empty theater in Pilsen, I had to wonder who the work was mounted for. The show had style, intelligence, and emotion. But it was sorely lacking in latinidad, experimentation, and direction.

A series of staged poems by Latin American and European Spanish-language writers such as Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda, Voces y cuerpos III, which means "voices and bodies," featured a reciting company of five, a dancer, a classical quartet, and a soprano.

The only U.S. Hispanic--and contemporary--writer featured in Voces y cuerpos III was Lopez-Lemus himself, whose piece, "Traigo," was executed by a chorus of voices accompanied by haunting gypsylike music. Every other piece was a standard of the Spanish literary canon, and every one was more than 30 years old.

In other words, there was nothing especially latino, or especially experimental, about the works chosen or their context. Nor was there much in the staging to signal innovation or local flavor. Lopez-Lemus seemed to have a very limited knowledge of the kinds of staged experimental poetry being presented in Chicago, not just by the likes of Mark Smith and the Loofah Method, but by Latinos like Gregorio Gomez and by LCT in last year's Metaphoria. Voces y cuerpos III was lovely, but startlingly conventional.

This may seem more a political concern than an artistic one, but it seems that when a company calls itself Latino Experimental, it is setting forth a certain agenda. Lopez-Lemus adds in his bio notes that his goal is "the formation of a strong Latino Theatre life in Chicago." So I have to wonder how Voces y cuerpos III managed to fall so short of its promises and to shoot right over the very people it wanted to reach.

Because it was in Spanish, it missed the college-educated, English-dominant Latinos and Anglos who might appreciate its content. And because it was so classical, it failed to recognize the only people who could conceivably want to see it: the Spanish-dominant immigrant community.

Sometimes the different media in Voces y cuerpos III merged well; most of the time they distracted from the work. They seemed to scream, We are damn serious about this work. The production aspired to such gravity that it often undercut the intended humor of the original authors, as in the case of the few funny lines in "La negra fulo" by Jorge de Lima. By juggling so many different elements, Lopez-Lemus may have been trying to meet the promise to experiment in his company's title. It simply didn't work. Often the players themselves seemed confused about what they were doing and why.

This is a shame, because there was much to be said for the players. Julia Mayer McCarthy danced passionately. Yolanda Velazquez, still an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute and a real discovery, revealed genuine depth in her recitations. The musicians were superb. And Lopez-Lemus himself is an engaging writer and actor.

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