Speaking in Tongues

Ceremonia Inconclusa (Unfinished Ceremony)

Occasionally something happens as it should.

South Florida is quickly becoming home to some of the best Hispanic theater in the nation. In its 15th year, the International Hispanic Theatre Festival, which concluded June 18, consisted of 15 productions from 10 countries. The festival was the largest and most prominent gathering of its type in the United States. Next year there are even plans to take it to the Big Apple. "Imagine that," jokes Mario Ernesto Sanchez, artistic director of the festival as well as Miami's Teatro Avante. "We're taking culture to New York."

At the Spanish group La Zaranda's June 10 performance of La Puerta Estrecha (The Narrow Door) at the Colony Theater, Sanchez explained to his mostly Hispanic audience: "This is our opportunity to share our culture." For this reason Sanchez makes sure Teatro Avante's productions, such as this year's Lila, la Mariposa, have supertitles (translations that are projected above the stage). He also incorporates into the festival's repertoire Hispanic theater performed in English, like the Bridge Theatre's The Great Confession, which continues through July 2 in Miami Beach, as well as dance and performances by groups like La Zaranda that use minimal dialogue.

Magaly Agüero works the room in a most resourceful way
Magaly Agüero works the room in a most resourceful way

In South Florida, home to one of the most diverse populations of Latin Americans in the world, a Colombian says ahorita (right now), a Cuban says ahorita (in a little while), and never the twain shall meet. Part of the benefit of the festival, which showcased groups from the United States, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and even Teatro Delle Radici from Switzerland, is that people learned about one another.

Anyone who has traveled far enough or long enough can attest to the comfort that comes from a familiar intonation or colloquial saying. Our first home may be our place of birth, but our second and most permanent domicile is our language. In an area where more than a million people speak Spanish, it makes sense to offer good theater in the native tongue. Fortunately for gringos Hispanic theater tends to rely more on physicality, symbolism, and implied meaning than the United States variety.

One impressive Spanish-language work now being performed in Little Havana is Magaly Agüero's Ceremonia Inconclusa (Unfinished Ceremony), presented by Teatro Incongruente and Artemis Performance Network. In this one-woman show, which is part dramatic monologue and part performance art, Cecilia summons her demons, her angels, and her past. Speaking from her tomb at the bottom of the sea, Cecilia -- part saint, part whore -- looks for meaning in her life and her death. As Carl Jung wrote in Dreams, Memory and Symbol, "The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not?"

Thanks to Agüero's tremendous presence and wonderful use of space, we the audience, like Cecilia, are condemned and cleansed by her poetic exorcism. The show's origins are in a meeting several years ago between Agüero, a Cuban actress trained in Havana's Escuela Nacional, and Susan Caraballo, executive director of Artemis, an arts organization that helps South Florida-based artists and performers find the resources to do their work. Besides grant-writing, marketing, and networking, Artemis has a performance space in downtown Miami's Little Havana, which Agüero solicited and has made integral to her play.

The success of any portrayal, but especially a one-person show, depends upon the actor's affinity with his or her performance area; this is an important element of Ceremonia Inconclusa. The Artemis space is very small; it seats 38 comfortably, although 60 squeezed in for opening night. A runway about ten feet long connects a small platform and the main stage. The seats run parallel to the runway. (Think Miss America.) Agüero has used the room resourcefully. Cecilia greets you at the door and sends you away when the action is finished. The fact that the play begins as soon as the audience enters breaks the normal separation between spectator and performer. It is not at all uncommon for a character to speak to an audience, especially in a one-person performance, but Agüero's way of doing it is very powerful -- moving and disturbing at times.

The props are simple: candles, incense, a bowl of grapes, a bowl of rose petals, and an altar decorated in red and black -- the colors of Elegguá, the Afro-Cuban deity who opens and closes paths. Agüero's extravagant use of the minimal creates a theatricality that is engaging. The red satin of the altar becomes a river of blood. The grapes become an instrument of desire. A white gauzy cloth is at first the skirt of a child, then later a shroud. The rose petals become the fixating point for obsession, frustration, and anger as Cecilia goes from cherishing the petals to ripping them to shreds.

Sometimes Agüero distances herself from the audience with grand, formal gestures. At other moments she is raw, jerky, very personal, and in your face. The persona of Cecilia shifts from a throaty, seasoned cabaret singer to a submissive, seductive geisha. She is an old santera (a female priest in the Afro-Cuban religion Santería) blowing tobacco through the end of a cigar to purify the altar space of negative influences, then a young girl from Havana's prerevolutionary aristocracy recalling a childhood of sweets, frilly things, and her loving caregiver, Pilar.

Agüero, a well-trained actress who has also studied dance, does not hide behind her skill and instruction. On the contrary she conveys raw emotion and evocative experience. Cecilia relives events of the salon of her girlhood in Havana and her first interracial love affair. Themes of patriarchy and oppression are explored but emerge and vanish as naturally as Cecilia's varied personas; the work is stronger for this. One may not even recognize pieces of red and blue cloth topped by a white glove on the floor as the form of a Cuban flag -- and perhaps be better off for it.

Agüero's style is dreamlike but enigmatic and very convincing. Long ago Agüero hoped to create a theater company that represented a panorama of ethnic backgrounds and artistic disciplines. She planned to call it the Multicultural Laboratory Theater. When she couldn't find the right participants and resources, Agüero realized she could do it alone. Through her study of Eastern philosophy and Asian dance and movement such as kabuki and tai chi, she embodied what she had hoped for in her theatre company. Thus Teatro Incongruente was born.

In Ceremonia Inconclusa she employs a red fan to communicate in a way that is almost Morse code. While talking she punctuates her sentences with a flick of the wrist. Or she lingers, letting the fan open like the tail of a peacock. Indeed Agüero's performance is so intimate, theatrical, and dance-oriented, even a non-Spanish-speaking theater lover would benefit from checking it out.

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