Saturday, November 15, 2008

Jose Rivera's "Boleros for the Disenchanted"

Boleros for the Disenchanted is the much-anticipated new work by playwright Jose Rivera, author of the lauded Marisol, Cloud Tectonics, and the Academy-Award winning film The Motorcycle Diaries. Rivera is credited with popularizing magical realism on the stage much as his Sundance Institute mentor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, popularized the genre through the medium of the novel. Rivera's most recent opus, however, eschews the form that brought him to fame in favor of a sentimental love story firmly grounded in realism. Granted, the play includes his signature poetic language, complex themes, and exploration of the theatre convention; however, those expecting pregnant men or postmodern angels will meet a new phase of the playwright's work and maybe disappointed.

The plot of Boleros follows the romantic follies of Flora, a young Puerto Rican, from her early encounters with philandering men through the discovery of her life partner, Eusebio. I must commend Rivera for the fact that his work often adopts a female protagonist. Typically, this assumption leads to a feminist critique of Western society; however, in this play, the female protagonist falls prey to stereotypical paternal situation that is neither cathartic nor political. Instead, Rivera portrays a relationship based in status quo politics as opposed to questioning the status quo that creates such paradigms. One theatre practitioner commented that Rivera had sold out to Hollywood with this play. And the general amusement of the audience surrounding me confirms this estimation. Good for him for delivering a play that speaks to Latino/a audiences in a strictly capitalistic level.

On the other hand, I was made aware of Latino audiences who found the representations of Latino/a's reprehensible. The father as drunk, mother as devout Catholic, young girl as chaste, and young man as philandering seemed too easy stereotypes to fall within. As the story is billed as Rivera's most-autobiographical work (the roles of Flora and Eusebio are based upon his parents), perhaps the stereotypic representations are rooted entirely in reality. This, too, may explain why the plot takes so long to take off (the entire production clocking in at a whopping 2 hours and 45 minutes) rather than skimming some of the details to get to the juicy love story.

The second act opens thirty years later after Eusebio and Flora have shared a loving life together with children, grandchildren, and a home in Daleville, Alabama. This device is what I find most appealing about the show and the fact that it utilizes the same cast in each act, a la Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9. The comments on love and a life lived together are some of the most heartfelt and beautiful scenes on the subject that I have ever seen in the theatre, though a bit more editing might have made the emotional impact a bit more powerful.

The performances are mostly sufficient with two exceptions. Flora Diaz, who replaced the original actress, as Flora in Act I and Eva in Act II is simply grating in both roles and does not have the chops against the other more established actors. Socorro Santiago, on the other hand, who portrays the matronly Dona Milla in Act I and Old Flora in Act II delivers nothing less than a star-turning performance. For most of the show, I simply could not take my eyes off of her; her unglamorous, emotionally wrenching performance deservedly brings the house down on more than one occasion. The other actors do a fine job, but are most commendable in the fact that they are so good looking. All in all, the epic nature of the play makes it a grand effort and one that, though long, brings many hearty laughs and significant tears - even from this jaded reviewer.

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