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A bearded man in olive drab spews out a fist-pounding diatribe. A couple gyrates brutally as if trapped in a sadistic rumba. A young man stands motionless with a black box over his head. A girl with a red scarf around her neck pulls it over her face in one swift movement. Her features jut out underneath the red cloth and strain upward as if they might explode and splatter onto the ceiling. Somewhere in the beginning of Prometeo's production of the third act of novelist Reinaldo Arenas's only theatrical work, Persecución, I put my pen down and did not pick it up again. This young troupe of student actors didn't convert me into an audience member. It transformed me into a spectator. An audience member watches and at best can be entertained and possibly moved to tears, laughter, or both. But a spectator absorbs. He ingests and is ingested, risking the frightening possibility of being transformed by a theatrical work. Theater that takes courage to present also takes courage to witness, and Prometeo's rendition of this third act is well worth witnessing.
It is no mistake that Persecución is the only play Arenas wrote, and anyone who thinks the singularity of his theatrical effort is owing to a lack of talent in that genre has missed the point. A writer of Arenas's caliber and capability does not haphazardly stumble into a new genre; he selects it like a hunter selects his weapons. He instinctively and brilliantly turned to the stage not to tell about the political repression he endured in Cuba; he did that eloquently in his autobiography, Before Night Falls. Persecución does not tell about or even describe torture. It is torture incarnate.
This Spanish-language production, preceded by Suandende, a short play based on a Yoruban tale written by Lydia Cabrera, was part of International Hispanic Theatre Festival and will run through July 28. Persecución gives us a chilling example of the theater of the absurd in its purest form.
Arenas began writing his play in Cuba in 1984 and finished it in 1986 in New York. The executors of Arenas's estate, Margarita and Jorge Camacho, gave Prometeo, Miami-Dade Community College's theater company, the rights to perform a segment of this work in 1986. (Moviegoers will remember the Camachos as the two Spaniards living in France who sneaked Arenas's manuscripts out of Cuba in the recent movie version of Before Night Falls, which has garnered the late writer's work newfound fame.) Prometeo debuted the play that year, directed by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz.
As Prometeo director Teresa Maria Rojas explains, "People go to the theater not to see the text acted out but to see the subtext, the intention and sensation that is hidden in the language." While lines about the availability of cool drinks and compulsory attendance at neighborhood meetings point to real political and social situations in Cuba, the corporal images and voices that accompany the text describe human suffering in a way that even an eloquently written story can't. Persecución is a metaphoric account of political repression -- the subtle manipulation of ideas, organized social control, and finally pure torture and imprisonment. It is the subconscious unbridled and returned to its primitive state of being. Primal sounds and gestures populate this play, which doesn't attempt to mirror the human being in the face of destruction and oppression but rather the human subconscious -- a very challenging and daring attempt for these thirteen young actors, nine of whom are performing for the first time.
The main characters, anonymously called She and I (played by Florieve Gonzalez and Juan Arevalo), represent Arenas and a female counterpart. A chorus of nine actors accompanies them. The chorus converts itself into an aviary of birdlike whispers and cackles repeating nonsensical lines. It chatters, whispers, moans, and laughs. Its members curl up to one another one moment but are languid and desolate the next. Early in the play, Gonzalez asserts her character's well-being by cheerfully declaring, "I'm fine!" She then repeats the line accompanied by a pecking gesture, as if she's been transformed into a frantic hen. Later she crouches in a gut-wrenching cry as if giving birth and shuffles in a slow circle, which by its first full revolution becomes a rumba. These actors do not portray wounded human beings but open the wound and look inside. Prometeo's style is very interactive. At one point the chorus peers into the audience as if the latter were onstage and descends like a band of ruffians, flirting raucously, yelling, and stomping menacingly. These actors use their agility and spontaneity to harness an incredible energy that holds them together even when they are engaged in the most disparate of activities.
The challenge of the theater of the absurd is to keep the production visually accessible and cohesive. Rojas's inexhaustible guidance and innovative directorial decisions are the force behind this play's success. Rojas connects the two pieces by keeping Aurora Castellanos, the narrator of Suandende, onstage throughout Persecución. As she sits silently stage right, her profile takes on a shadowlike presence. Although dressed in an earthy hood and robe of leaves, Castellanos is otherworldly. Her folds of stark white skin and enigmatic stare embody the mystery and spiritual supremacy of El Monte, the dwelling place of deities and spirits in the Afro-Cuban religion. As the soothsayer and storyteller, her presence gives clarity to Suandende, which is performed in the Yoruban dialect.
While Persecución is obviously political, Suandende is gender-based. A woman (Beatriz Montanes) uses her female cunning to escape one tyrannical lover (Honorio Toussaint) and seduce another (Victor Silva). Watching her manipulate two different men in opposite yet equally powerful ways is at times comical and fascinating, reminding us of the surreptitious nature of seduction and escape. In an erotic dance of hide-and-seek, she transforms her body into both a point of flight and a place of refuge. Montanes uses the stage's space luxuriously, and her gestural vocabulary is much more expansive than that of her counterparts, who do a sufficient job but at times risk becoming stereotypes.
No matter how culturally specific a play is, theater must point beyond itself toward the universal, and Prometeo does just that. Leave it to a group of students to take on such difficult texts. They have no Carbonell Award to vie for or season subscriber to lose. Risky theater is too often understood to mean risky content. One glance at a Channel 7 newscast is enough of a reminder that we lost our capacity to be stunned a long time ago. Courageous theater lies in form, not content, and with the abundance of quality directors and actors populating the stages of South Florida, seeing more of them try to meet this challenge would be thrilling.