Get Surreal

If you choose this week to enter into the world created by the ninth International Hispanic Theatre Festival, you may find yourself in a landscape of altered reality, where the stakes are high, the laughs are dark, and the tragic and comedic are almost inextricably tangled.

For nearly a decade now artistic director Mario Ernesto Sanchez and his associates at Teatro Avante have made it possible for Miami theatergoers to see dramas of uncommon brilliance, presented by highly talented playwrights, actors, and directors from throughout Latin America. This year the highly acclaimed festival runs for eighteen days and includes twelve plays from ten countries.

One surreal component of the festival arises from the practical necessity of changing sets and lighting designs almost every day to accommodate successive plays. In order to accomplish this while still enhancing each script, the various companies use unique props, unusual but simple scenery, and often rely heavily on the atmospheric effect of lights. A stark wooden staircase, for example, can be made to represent all of recorded history. Projections on screens set scenes and alter moods. In the three previous festivals I've attended, I have been amazed at how effectively the plays were presented. But it should come as no surprise, as many of the players travel from town to town in their native countries to present their works -- often just one step ahead of repressive government censors. They are experienced masters when it comes to maximizing the creative potential of a minimal amount of equipment.

The sense of surrealism is heightened immeasurably by the plays themselves. Although it is dangerous to generalize, certain things can be expected from highly literary Latin theater (as opposed to the light farces that play throughout the year in Miami). The acting and action often border on the melodramatic, the tone is dark, the view of the world absurd, and the plots frequently are metaphorical interpretations of larger issues such as politics and the human condition. Many pieces draw upon traditions of sociopolitical turmoil, tragic elements of history, and intriguing aspects of the national character. When viewing a work from countries such as Colombia or Mexico, for example, you must consider that theater there is still considered an effective force for social change, and that the consequences of presenting certain plays in certain locales can be serious.

The passion and emotion predictably found on-stage will be augmented this year by a two-day conference titled "Differences Among Us," which will bring together eighteen artists and academics to grapple with the problems of theater, racism, and the future of culture among the three major Hispanic groups in the U.S. A Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. All conference panels will be held June 17 and 18 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at MDCC's Wolfson Campus Red Room.

The festival began this past Friday, but there is still plenty to see at Teatro Avante's El Carrusel Theatre in Coral Gables. For example, tonight (Thursday) the Venezuelan company Fundaci centsn Cultural presents Jose Sim centsn Escalona's Senoras. A startling combination of deep tragedy and absurd comedy marks this work dealing with three aging sisters, isolated and absorbed by regrets about the past, who find a means of escape and a chance for joy in the promises of a television game show. On Friday and Saturday Argentina's Comedia Cordobesa stages El viejo criado by Roberto Cossa, a tale about two long-time friends who pass most of their days in a bar rehashing the events of their lives until an odd couple from another era in history arrives at their table. In this time-altered universe, middle-class values and Argentinian cultural quirks are comically examined.

The next production, on Sunday, arrives courtesy of the Costa Rican company Teatro Ambar, and ventures far into the twilight zone. Ishtar Yasin's Noche Cadabra introduces an ancient witch who conjures up the souls of outspoken feminine figures -- including Mae West -- to understand women's roles in recorded history. On Monday and Tuesday Puerto Rico's El Roble Escenico presents El olor del popcorn, by Jose Luis Ramos Escobar, in which an improbable couple A a criminal and his victim -- are united in an exploration of the human and economic origins of violent crime.

La noche de los asesinos, by Cuban exile Jose Tirana (he lives in France), will be performed next Wednesday and Thursday by the Colombian troupe Teatro Aquelarre. This play also concerns a criminal and his crime, and features three actors playing a variety of characters involved in an absurdist game of murder and justice. On Friday, June 24, Uruguay's Instituci centsn Teatral El Galp centsn presents Spanish playwright Jose Sanchis Sinisterra's Ay, Carmela, which is set during the Spanish Civil War and examines how innocent people can be drawn into irrational conflict. (Ay, Carmela repeats on Sunday afternoon, June 26.) Mexico's bilingual entry in the festival, Lo que cala son los filos by Mauricio Jimenez (Saturday, June 25) is a fascinating tableau of Mexican history in which crucial scenes are set on different levels of a staircase. The subjugation of the Indian population by the conquistadors, for example, is re-enacted in a frank, harsh light.

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