A Celebration of Culture

Hispanic theater heats up with a Cuban classic

Miami, where a short drive can transport you from Little Havana to Little Buenos Aires and beyond, is the ideal spot in which to celebrate the vast and thrilling human quilt that is Hispanic culture. And some of the happiest celebrations are happening right here and now during the XX International Hispanic Theatre Festival at Teatro Venevisión Internacional.

Exuberance, ambition, and talent join hands in this adventure, which brings more than a touch of international drama to summer in the city. Mario Ernesto Sanchez and Miami's Teatro Avante, the festival's producers, took pride of place and began the festivities with the American premiere of a storied Cuban classic: Virgilio Piñera's 1960 play El Filántropo(The Philanthropist), freely adapted by Raquel Carrió and directed by Lilliam Vega. Elsewhere the offerings are rich. Running through June 26 at Teatro Venevisión and six other venues around South Florida, this year's festival is the most ambitious edition yet of this annual tribute to Hispanic drama. There are eighteen different productions, in addition to children's events and academic workshops, showcasing companies from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, France, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela, and the United States.

It helps if you speak Spanish, but it's not a necessity: English subtitles projected above the stage translate Spanish-language plays for the Anglophone audience. A play performed in French, Solo para Paquita, is subtitled in Spanish. Tickets are inexpensive, and the variety of shows is dazzling.

The Philanthropist: Virgilio Piñera's freely adapted theater of the absurd
The Philanthropist: Virgilio Piñera's freely adapted theater of the absurd

Details

Through June 26. Venevisin International Theater, Riviera Plaza, 1560 S Dixie Hwy, Coral Gables Koubek Center, University of Miami, 2705 SW 3rd St, Miami; Miami Dade College North Campus, 11380 NW 27th Ave, Miami; Miami-Dade College Teatro Prometeo, Wolfson Campus, 300 NE 2nd Ave, Miami; Key Biscayne Community Center, 10 Village Green, Key Biscayne; Florida Center for the Literary Arts, 300 NE 2nd Ave, Miami; Tower Theater, 1508 SW 8th St, Miami; Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave, Fort Lauderdale; Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, 455 Grand Bay Dr, Key Biscayne. 800-494-8497, 305-663-5410 (Venevisión), 305-445-8877 (other venues).

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The Philanthropist is perhaps inevitably the most elusive facet of the festival's colorful kaleidoscope, a brave choice by any standard. The play packs in a lot, from a willfully simplified version of Hegel's dialectic of master and slave, to an ironic look at simple Marxist solutions. It's about a mysterious millionaire who runs a human puppet show, each of his puppets willingly humiliated, each hoping to grab his money. "The millions are mine," Coco the mad millionaire tells his prey, "and you are here of your own free will." Just how free poor people actually are and what choices anyone really has are among the profoundly unsettling questions raised in Piñera's dark comedy. The ending, in which Coco's slaves attack their master like weasels tearing at flesh, is redundant and grotesque.

Themes are obscured in Carrió's free adaptation, which reduces the number of characters in Coco's puppet show from more than a dozen to four, adds anachronistic touches, and insists on specificity of detail when vagueness might speak volumes. The production values are cheap, the set ugly, and the tone of the acting uncertain. Yet the right note is sounded by Avante's Sanchez himself, not as the director this time, but in his deliciously over-the-top performance as Coco, the heartless madman with money. Although Jessica Rodriguez is several rehearsals short of a finished character as the slutty Bella, and Jacqueline Briceño is not much better as the humble maid Motica, others in the cast suggest the depth and promise of Piñera's script. Juan Pablo Zapata is genuinely sweet as Sultan, a young man who wants only to become a plastic surgeon so that he may make everyone beautiful. Julio Rodriguez is touching in the pathetic role of King, who dreams of becoming an honest journalist. As Coco makes them all beg, hump, and bark like dogs, their degradation at the hands of the powerful carries a hurtful truth -- in or out of Cuba.

The author would have enjoyed that ambiguity. Piñera lived and worked in Buenos Aires for twelve years before returning to Cuba in 1958, and it's tempting to see the influence of his friend and champion, Jorge Luis Borges, in his work. It's also tempting to notice his affinity with the French existentialists and with the theater of the absurd, although Piñera's 1948 absurdist masterpiece Falsa Alarma(False Alarm) anticipates rather than follows Ionesco's The Bald Soprano. Piñera's 1941 Electra Garrigo, his best-known play, sprung in full armor from the head of this precocious, electrifying artist.

The truth is Piñera is both unmistakably Cuban and utterly unclassifiable. Like other Cuban writers, as diverse in style as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas, Piñera combines an existentialist outlook with a postmodern sense of the baroque. Gay, brilliant, and rebellious, he found a ray of hope in the Cuban Revolution's deceptive outburst of liberalism in 1960 -- as tragic and brief a cultural episode as that inflicted upon Soviet artists in the Twenties -- but his light was soon dimmed by Fidel Castro's thought police. By the time Piñera died in Havana in 1979, he had been humiliated, interrogated, censored, and marginalized almost to oblivion. With exquisite hypocrisy, the communist regime then began taking credit for Piñera's career, reintroducing his name into official histories and allowing publication of his works abroad.

Yet his writing, like that of other gay geniuses, namely José Lezama Lima and Arenas, could not be made safe. Something else is at play in the holy trinity of Cuban letters even beyond the defiant homoerotic sensibility. These Cuban writers combine an almost insolent technical virtuosity with such cool precision that words shine as brightly as the tropical sun. An outsider's healthy distrust of authority and an Everyman's sense of everyday panic inform Piñera's work and keep it from toeing any party line. The sense of the absurd in Piñera lies not in any belief that our world or we ourselves are absurd; the Cuban translator of Beckett and Pinter knows the absurdity is rooted in the clash between our innate need for reason and a brutally unreasonable world. There are no answers: That is the absurd truth. Clarity is our intent; our failure to find it is our inescapable fate.

Piñera's style, on the page or the stage, embodies these tensions with sensual ease, the detached and humorous tone of his writing constantly at odds with the extreme situations lived by his characters. His play False Alarm, being presented during the current festival by Miami-Dade College's Teatro Prometeo, is drenched in fear of structures. His brilliant novel René's Flesh(La Carne de René) -- in which Piñera's prose remains as chaste as Saint Teresa's and as cool as the Marquis de Sade's -- is obsessed with the fear of pain. The Philanthropist, even in Raquel Carrió's radically cut version at Teatro Venevisión, approaches a frenzied fear of loneliness.

Loneliness is something Piñera knew well. It's something audiences everywhere will always recognize.

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