Up from the Ashes
Like apparitions rolling in from the sea, four rafters descend down the aisles from the back of the darkened Colony Theater toward the stage. Pedro (Luis Alberto Garcia), a soldier, crouches and peers excitedly through a telescope. Octavio (Gerardo Riveron) enters with a compass. Devoto (Jorge Hernandez), dressed as a priest, waves a lantern like a searchlight. And Amalia (Lourdes Simón), the archetypal female, holds a bell next to her face, ringing it in a sporadic, almost superstitious manner. This innovative way to open a play about four people lost at sea characterizes the magic that weaves its way through Teatro Avante's rendition of Colombian playwright José Assad's Cenizas Sobre el Mar (Ashes on the Sea), which opened the Sixteenth International Hispanic Theatre Festival on Friday, June 1. An enigmatic elixir of magical realism and the theater of the absurd, the play, written by Assad in 1989 to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of the discovery of America, is about four rafters who have been adrift at sea for 100 years. They are symbols of Latin America as a continent of people uprooted, at war, searching, and creating and re-creating identities.
Representations of Colombia's two most powerful and repressive patriarchs, the Catholic Church and the military, leave no doubt that, although the play's theme is universal (and especially poignant in a city filled with residents with firsthand memories of rafts and refugee life), it also is definitely Colombian.
Early on and throughout the play, Pedro jumps up and down excitedly and yells, "Land ho!" As if in Peter Pan's Never-Never-Land, these four castaways have been off course for quite some time. Octavio, who seems to fill the role of guide, declares: "We should keep going the wrong way until we do a 360-degree turn."
One of the most interesting things about a theater festival is that it not only transports new work from one culture to another, it also unites playwrights with their works in new ways. Performed in Colombia, the political nature of the play's symbolism would be much more obvious. In the hands of Teatro Avante's codirectors, Mario Ernesto Sanchez and Lilliam Vega, it becomes a surrealistic experiment in reversal and rebirth, turning ashes into fire again.
As we discover in watching these four actors, ash is the common denominator of fire -- it is passion compounded, the residue of endless cycles of destruction and renewal. It also reveals the shifting realities human beings conjure to save themselves when they are lost. But for all its apparent futility, this inexhaustible search is not framed in a cynical light. And these actors give their performance spontaneity and energy.
The malleable nature of the text and Teatro Avante's interesting treatment were confirmed by the playwright himself, who hadn't seen his play performed in more than ten years. In a postperformance discussion, Assad -- modest, almost bashful -- expressed his amazement at re-encountering his play: "It's like having a son who you have not seen for many years, and when he returns, you hardly recognize him."
Assad's text is wonderfully poetic and works like waves from the ocean, using the ebb and flow of fixed refrains to give it cohesiveness. The play, which is not divided into acts and has no intermission, is more of a meditation or an epic poem than a drama. While one of the play's strong points, this lyricism also is a potential pitfall. At times this circularity becomes tedious, creating a feeling that the play is ending when it is not, but the adventurous direction and eloquent physical vocabulary of the actors prevent it from running too far off course.
Cenizas Sobre el Mar is a challenge for actors because its meaning cannot be derived from plot or even character development. The actors must shape-shift yet somehow remain recognizable, and this talented troupe pulls off that feat. The players are at once thumb-sucking and ornery children, raving madmen, soldiers, travelers, and lovers. Sanchez and Vega's diligent attention to their cast helps the four actors maintain a perfect equilibrium. No one character overshadows another. They often move with the musicality of a carousel. In one love scene, Amalia easily and simply dances and turns with each man. Soon the three men take off their shirts and become archetypal soldiers, asking her to wait for them. These seamless scene changes give the play its dreamlike fluidity.
The actors are as agile as circus performers, using a few props resourcefully. A shawl becomes a newborn infant. A wooden chest becomes a bed, birthing table, tomb for a rotting skull, and more. Straying from the literal, more naturalistic style found in most contemporary U.S. theater, these simple objects are open for unlimited interpretations.
The central character of the play is Amalia. As the only woman onstage, she must be lover, mother, matriarch, witch, and goddess. Simón gives her character a strong, vaguely masculine strength at the center, which persists despite all her shifting personas. Statuesque and fierce, she shakes her fist to the sky and exclaims, "I am hungry!" While not a conventional gesture, it is strikingly appropriate for a woman who has survived 100 years in limbo. This gives the role a much-needed cohesiveness and establishes Amalia as the axis around which the three men revolve.
From the beginning Cenizas feels as much dance as it does theater. Having no intermission or overtly delineated scene change, Sanchez and Vega have brilliantly worked with movement and gesture to mark not the passing of time but the various stages of the soul in its search for a resting place. In these moments the cast often slows its movements to a standstill. With Ricardo Rodriguez's exquisite lighting design, the effect is visually arresting. Despite the Colony's medium size, Rodriguez manages to capture the actors' faces, which are painted in silver, creating the effect of a photograph.
The set design is intriguing in that designer Leandro Soto has not tried to replicate a real raft. Instead he weaves together shells, rags, and rope in a circle on the floor. Soto, an accomplished Cuban visual artist himself, has a minimalist design style that corresponds well with the directors' vision, making the raft a blank canvas rather than the site for a real voyage.
Mario Ernesto Sanchez, who also is the festival's director, has made an effort for the past few years to give several plays English supertitles. Unfortunately the English translations projected above the stage at the Colony could be seen clearly only when the theater was very dark. Although the play is very physical and dancelike in nature, Assad's text is quite abstract and lyrical. It would be hard for non-Spanish speakers to understand without a translation.
Theatergoers who missed the debut will have a chance to see Cenizas Sobre el Mar in July. "Castaways are dead until found alive," declares Pedro. The same is true for works of art. This play manages to revive and reinvigorate the age-old symbol of the sea as the universal metaphor for life, travel, birth, passage, and death. We are lucky that it has washed upon our shores.
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