Two wooden rocking chairs sit on an otherwise barren stage. The actors take their seats -- she with her knitting and he with a book, Virgilio Piñera's El No. In an undetermined place and time (though it is pre-revolutionary Cuba), Emilia (Patricia Azan) and Vicente (Dexter Capiro) pledge their eternal love. But no, not quite. They plan to stay together forever, but without the trappings of marriage and the pitfalls of sex -- not even one kiss. The fact that Piñera's posthumously published El No belongs to the theater of the absurd makes the premise all the more viable. Exaggerated gestures, repetition of nonsensical phrases, and this bizarre plotline spin the actors into the void, the necessary nada.
One of the most notable aspects about this play, which makes its U.S. debut in Little Havana's Teatro Ocho, is that Piñera incorporates something from all of the classical and modern definitions of the word "comedy." The play is light, absurd, bawdy, and ribald. It is a comedy of errors and a comedy of manners. Emilia scolds Vicente's chair for continuing to rock after he's left. Vicente caresses her chair amorously. Azan and Capiro give hilarious performances; like the rocking chairs themselves, they keep the comic energy in constant motion.
This is director Rolando Moreno's tenth production at Teatro Ocho and he has cleverly sculpted the original unwieldy script down to a cast of three: Emilia, Vicente, and Emilia's mother, Laura (Anna Silvetti). As he explains, "The plot was much more complicated and involved a large cast of family members, neighbors, and friends. I tried to simplify the script and preserve the basic idea of the play: a union between two people that flies in the face of all societal norms and traditions."
Moreno has synthesized the rest of the "cast" into one character: Laura. She represents a hysterical mother, a badgering traditionalist, a neighborhood gossip, and an upstanding parishioner all in one. She is the play's alter ego. "Get married," she rages, coaxes, threatens, pleads, and sulks -- but in Piñera's work the rigid alter ego can morph into the reckless id in a matter of lines. With Silvetti's comic ability the result is outrageous. In one moment of desperation, Laura tries to appeal to Vicente "man to man." Standing with her legs spread wide and her arms crossed over her chest, she is every bit the macho man Vicente can never seem to be.
Like any theater space that has made it to the 21st Century, Teatro Ocho has its history. At the end of the 1980s, famed Cuban actress Maria Julia Casanova originally mortgaged her house to build the space and called it Teatro Casanova. Three years ago the Hispanic Theater Guild bought the space. While many Calle Ocho theaters have a reputation for feeding the older exile crowd with an endless stream of crass political humor and Fidel imitations, El No is an obvious exception. As Moreno distinguishes, "This doesn't have to do with Cuba but good Cuban theater." El No is an unequivocal yes to rebellion, matrimonial anarchy, and free will.
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