Super Mario

Since his debut as a novelist in 1963, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa has been surprising the public. Not only does he move with stylistic ease between forms (novels, short stories, criticism, journalism, essays, plays) and genres (political allegories, mysteries, erotica), he wreaks havoc with literary conventions in his fiction and drama. As if linear narrative cannot contain the breadth of his imagination, he manipulates chronology and place, diverges and converges story lines, and overlaps points of view. Although criticized for sacrificing character development on the altar of experimentation, his work is rarely esoteric, since he roots his tales in the concrete details of everyday life.

In one of his best-known novels, 1966's La Casa Verde (The Green House) Vargas Llosa depicts life in the jungles and the small towns of Peru by juxtaposing the perspectives of various characters. He revisits some of the same people in his 1986 drama La Chunga -- most notably, the title's name sake, Chunga, an enigmatic, world-weary woman who runs the bar in which the drama's action takes place.

Set in a squalid watering hole in northern Peru in the Forties, La Chunga is part mystery, part memory play. Act One opens with a quartet of hapless small-time gamblers throwing dice and drunkenly belting out a ditty about "wine, women, and song." Intermittently they stop their game to speculate on the whereabouts of a beautiful young woman named Meche. We learn through a flashback that a snaky pimp named Josefino (one of the gamblers) brought the naive girl into the dive several months ago. Losing at craps, he sold her for 3000 soles to Chunga for one night and Meche has not been seen since.

In a provocative production at Area Stage on Miami Beach, La Chunga is unsparingly cynical -- yet utterly convincing -- about how women can suffer at the hands of men. Assisted by an excellent cast, co-director Maria Rodaz conveys the connections between love, sex, ownership, and power. While the evening will unsettle anyone who has been involved in, or witness to, an abusive relationship, the script, and Rodaz's interpretation of it, does not stop there. Not only does Meche fall prey to macho brutality, she serves as the object of all the characters' fantasies, illuminating just how crucial delusions are in helping Chunga and the men cope with their poverty-stricken lives.

In Act Two, with a tip of the hat to Rashomon, the Kurosawa film about different perceptions of a crime, each of the men elaborates what he thinks happened to Meche as well as what happened between Meche and Chunga, whom the men relentlessly label a dyke throughout the play. Vargas Llosa nimbly shifts the action back and forth between the present and the past, the actual and the imagined. By straddling the boundary between his characters' ideas of reality and the power of their fantasies, the playwright explores the intoxicating correlations between memory, truth, and desire.

Not your average suburban drama, and not easy to pull off with aplomb. Yet Rodaz convincingly juggles time frames and intricate transitions by deftly staging multiple scenarios in the theater's tight quarters. Although extremely narrow, the stage does boast high ceilings and substantial depth, which the director (who designed the gritty set along with her husband John Rodaz) exploits to great advantage: Throughout the evening, she allows the crap game, played during "real" time, to continue upstage to the audience's left. Simultaneously, scenes taking place in the past or in the characters' imaginations unfold at the back of the stage, on a staircase leading to a second level built for this production, and in Chunga's room located on this second tier.

I saw the show during its final preview the night before it officially opened, and some of the transitions seemed labored, lending a schematic feel to the unfurling of the fantasy sequences. Also, while the actors were almost uniformly in sync in their connections to each other, they were still a half-step away from finding the right balance between black comedy and suspense that the script requires. Ultimately, though, none of this diminished the overall impact. In fact, I suspect, given the raw energy of the performances, that by this time in the run such rough edges have been smoothed over.

In recent years Area's artistic director John Rodaz has tended to direct more often than he has appeared on-stage. In this production, however, he has the chance to demonstrate his considerable acting skills in a chilling portrayal of the bully Josefino. Prowling the stage with feral menace the character is a brown shirt in waiting, each moment comporting with Chunga's description of him as a petty fascist: "When I would disagree with you," she says, "out would come your knife, boots, and fist."

The rest of the cast includes accomplished Hispanic actors who appear regularly in Spanish-language theater yet who rarely perform in English. Sergio Campa-Perez is especially memorable, blustering his way around the stage as the lewd, loud-mouthed El Mono, whose posturing masks his lusts: As a child he raped the girl next door and now he longs to be spanked, tied up, you name it, as a punishment for his deed. In a darkly humorous fantasy scene that ranks as one of the standouts of the evening, Meche and Chunga oblige him.

Marilyn Romero brings a bone-tired resignation to her portrayal of Chunga. Poignantly, the actor allows the character's closed-down heart to be pried open by her concern for and attraction to Meche. Powerfully, Chunga stands up to the ruthless Josefino by sassing him in front of his cronies and by refusing to be his partner in running a brothel.

As Meche, Patricia Azan adroitly wavers between innocence and experience. Pretty but not particularly bright, Meche is aware of the power of her looks, yet she remains blind to any other power she might possess. And in conversations with Chunga, she reveals the danger inherent in confusing dependency and loss of control with being in love.

Rather than tell us what really happens to Meche, Vargas Llosa leaves it for us to decide. Unfazed by this lack of resolution, Rodaz wraps up the play on a melancholy note of longing. I left the theater with my versions of Meche's fate dueling inside my head. In one romantic outcome, Meche escapes to a better life in Lima, Peru. (That's my fantasy about liberation, freedom, and self-expression.) In another conclusion, Meche makes it to Lima but is forced into prostitution anyway. (That's the jaded social realist in me talking.) Vargas Llosa, an incessant narrative innovator and commentator on the art of storytelling, would have been pleased.

The Miami Beach-based Bridge Theater, dedicated to presenting English-language productions of Hispanic and Hispanic-American plays since 1986, found themselves homeless last year. (How unusual for a struggling company these days.) After a frustrating search, the theater has secured at least temporary shelter at the Miami Beach Woman's Club, a jewel of a building on Pinetree Drive. It dates back to the Twenties with wood-beamed ceilings and an airy atmosphere reminiscent of the lakeside recreation halls from my summers in upstate New York. Alchemy of Desire/Dead-man's Blues by playwright Caridad Svich (she is self-described in the program as a "hybrid [of] Spanish, Cuban, Croatian, and Argentine descent") opens the company's season.

Offbeat and compelling, Alchemy eschews realism as ardently as Vargas Llosa's work does. Through an impressionistic tableau of scenelets about grief and recovery, it relays how a young woman possessed by the spirit of her husband, recently killed in an unnamed war, is healed by the women in her community.

Incorporating hard-hitting monologues, dance movements, singing, and hallucinations, the script uses language that leaps from the elemental and sensual to the lyrical and arcane. In places Svich relies too enthusiastically on abstraction and mysticism. Since we are never told which war claimed husband Jamie, we can only assume he was killed by war with a capital W. Young widow Simone and the gang live in a nonspecific bayou-flavored, Southern backwood. Uneducated and possibly illiterate, they communicate in stunted, faux-poetic phrasing yet of course, they are much wiser than we are.

Such pretensions aside, the evening, as expressively directed by Steve Wise, cuts to the emotional core. It features guitar, flute, and drum music by Ry Cooder and the Chieftains (guaranteed to stir the heart any time it is heard), twilight-inspired lighting by Travis Neff, and a clean, sparse set by Jeffrey B. Phipps. Mariangelica Ayala, a Venezuelan actor making her Miami debut, heads a dynamic cast. In a raw, punchy monologue about chicken bones and death delivered after Jamie's funeral, Ayala's Simone slings her anger and grief at the audience as if she were drunk on mourning. The delirious, shattering, and unrestrained performance goes straight for the wounded parts harbored by all of us.

The women bent on rescuing Simone from her pain also inch their way powerfully under our skin: Caroline (Marjorie O'Neill-Butler), always busy at some task like snapping beans, cutting vegetables, or washing clothes; Selah (Pat Bowie), chewing on the end of a corncob pipe while dispensing wisdom; Tirasol (Eileen Engel), wringing her hands with worry; Miranda (Susan Gay), young, sullen, restless, yet eager to learn from her elders. Into this mix add the ghost-memory of Jamie, played by Todd Behrend, who in this role looks remarkably like a wide-eyed, guileless John Travolta.

Miami Beach neighbors Area Stage and the Bridge Theater have brought us English-language works by playwrights steeped in Hispanic culture, each of whom is committed to pushing the borders of typical play writing. It's a felicitous stroke of synchronistic programming that offers a refreshing challenge to South Florida audiences.

Alchemy of Desire/Dead-Man's Blues. Written by Caridad Svich; directed by Steve Wise; with Mariangelica Ayala, Eileen Engel, Marjorie O'Neill-Butler, Pat Bowie, Susan Gay, and Todd Behrend. Through December 22. Call 886-3908 for information or see "Calendar Listings."

La Chunga. Written by Mario Vargas Llosa; directed by Maria and John Rodaz; with Marilyn Romero, Patricia Azan, John Rodaz, Sergio Campa-Perez, Oscar Torres, and Pablo Duran. Through January 5. For information, call 673-8002 or see "Calendar Listings.

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