International Hispanic Theatre Festival 2012 Delivers Earth-Shattering Entertainment

"I want you to hold my motherfucking dick while I pee," a goateed ruffian in cut-off sleeves barks at a pale, fragile-looking guy, "so I don't get my hands wet!"

The bearded one turns from the urinal and, with his exposed penis dangling from his open fly, marches toward his victim.

"No!" the wimpy guy shrieks. "I can't do that!"


International Hispanic Theatre Festival

International Hispanic Theatre Festival: Produced by Mario Ernesto Snchez. Through July 29 at various venues in downtown Miami and Key Biscayne; 305-445-8877; teatroavante.com. Tickets cost $30 ($25 for students and seniors).

"Oh, you can't do that? But you can rape 7-year-old girls!"

The reaction from the approximately 300 audience members inside the Adrienne Arsht Center was a mixture of nervous laughter, fear, and uneasiness. It's not easy to watch an angry prison inmate brazenly bully a weaker one by exposing himself.

An actor whipping out his genitals is one hell of a way to kick off a theater festival, but it was Teatro Avante's choice for opening the 27th annual International Hispanic Theatre Festival (IHTF). The scene is part of Short Eyes, the legendary Puerto Rican poet Miguel Piñero's chilling 1974 play about inmates confronting a child rapist in a New York jail. Its staging at this year's festival was both a stroke of brilliance and fortunate timing, given that news had just broken that Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had covered up an assistant's years of sexually assaulting boys.

For nearly three decades, the IHTF has been a venerable grab bag of theatrical and cultural goodness from Central America, South America, and Spain. This year the focus is on Latino theater from the United States.

With outstanding plays from places as varied as Mexico, Colombia, and Chile, the festival has always churned out a diverse array of productions that stir the soul and bring attention to Hispanic playwrights and acting ensembles. The IHTF rolled out its latest version, which runs through July 29, last Friday night at the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater.

"We have been honoring other countries since 2008," Mario Ernesto Sánchez, the founder and producing artistic director of the IHTF, told New Times. "We felt it was time to honor the USA's Latino theater. Audiences will be able to experience... some of the best Hispanic groups from Miami, L.A., and New York, presented in English as well as Spanish."

In addition to U.S. theater, there will be productions from four other countries: Chile, Argentina, Spain, and Ecuador. The festival's second night featured the politically charged Infieles (Unfaithful), by Chilean playwright Marco Antonio de la Parra. It was performed by Miami's Teatro Prometeo, a new company that shows promise as an artistic force in South Florida.

Directed by Ernest Figueroa, the play centered around the political upheaval caused by brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet in the late 1980s. But the throwback setting didn't detract from the work's power to communicate the human condition to a contemporary audience. "Though the play was a reaction to and indictment of Pinochet's regime," Figueroa said as he prepared for his IHTF directorial debut. "It focuses more on how this type of oppression affects humanity. Ultimately, life is not about political influences, but how individuals are affected. Here in Miami, for some people, the politics of the play still resonates strongly."

This Thursday and Friday, July 19 and 20, the New York company Zerocompañía will perform Diana Chery-Ramírez's Aviones de Papel (Paper Airplanes) at Teatro Prometeo at Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus (300 NE Second Ave., Miami). The Colombian-born Chery-Ramírez has worked as a director, teacher, and playwright with several companies stateside and in her native country. Aviones de Papel, which marks her first turn in the IHTF, focuses on domestic violence and the walls of loneliness behind which the characters hide. "As a playwright, I think these characters are sketches of many people who hide in the midst of big cities," Chery-Ramírez says of the two central actors in her play. "They submerge themselves in their intimate worlds hoping to cure their wounds... Both have suffered from domestic violence in different ways...When they are forced to share a wall that divides their spaces, they have to find ways to deal with that." Both shows begin at 8:30 p.m.

The festival gets visually poetic July 21 and 22 at the Arsht Center (1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami) with Spanish troupe Kulunka Teatro's André y Dorine, a play that delves into the subject of Alzheimer's disease through two elderly characters portrayed by actors wearing cartoonish masks. Kulunka's dedication to what it calls "stage language" is the driving force behind this performance piece. Saturday's performance begins at 8:30 p.m., and Sunday's show starts at 5 p.m.

July 21 and 22 will also include a free bilingual play for families, El Encuentro de Juan Bobo y Pedro Animal (Juan Bobo Meets Pedro Animal), performed by New York's Teatro Sea. The circus-style play with puppets and live music will take place at the Key Biscayne Community Center (10 Village Green Way, Key Biscayne) and at the Miami Dade College InterAmerican Campus (627 SW 27th Ave., Miami).

Short Eyes, performed by the L.A.-based Urban Theatre Movement, might just be the festival's highlight. The staggering production was peppered with dark humor and viscerally intense moments. The story is based largely on the playwright's experiences in Sing Sing, where he served time for armed robbery. The inmates, led by Longshoe — portrayed brilliantly by veteran character actor Mark Rolston, who incidentally played Bogs, the inmate who wanted to rape Tim Robbins's Andy Dufresne in the 1994 film Shawshank Redemption — torment white, middle-class Clark, the prisoner sentenced for raping a young girl. They viciously beat him and then plot his murder in the shower. The sexual politics and unnerving portrayal of violence made for fantastic theater.

Though some of the language was outdated (the play was written in the '70s) and some of the performances from minor characters a bit forced and overdone, Piñero's prose and pace were gripping. The five-minute monologue by a character called Ice Man (played with uproarious flair by Carl Crudup), about masturbating to a Jane Fonda photograph, was a hilarious showcase of the playwright's understated brilliance. If the rest of the festival is this good, Miami is in for some earth-shattering entertainment.

"We've made a very special effort in the selection of the works we present and their artistic quality," Sánchez says of this year's fest. "We're proud that we have been able to thrive for 27 years!"

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