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Best of the Fest

Ancient festivals served as markers for human progress, celebrating the passing of time and the progression of the community. Although seasonal changes, harvests, and rites of passage are not the focus of today's festivals, these celebrations still provide a forum for assessing a community's evolution. Søren Kierkegaard wrote, "Life must be lived forwards, but understood backwards." Time passes. The minutes tick away. Money is counted. Wars are waged. But when confronted with a stage, we are asked to suspend not only our disbelief but also our conception of time. The 17th International Hispanic Theatre Festival, held May 31 through June 16, was not only a display of some of the most vibrant and innovative theater being created around the world today. It was also an opportunity to revisit, through the minds of others, ourselves, and the world we inhabit.

One of the most inspiring imaginations was that of Teatro Malayerba's Arístides Vargas, author and director of two of the festival's most ambitious and noteworthy plays: Rigoberta's House Faces South (codirected by Charo Frances) and Octopuses' Garden -- the first being the more successful of the two. Both plays cover the heavily trod terrain of memory and dreams yet break new ground with a quality of poetic language that one can liken only to the work of Spaniard Federico García Lorca. Invited by Nicaragua's Teatro Justo Rufino Garay on the condition that he write something specifically about the reality of Managua, Vargas, who lives in Ecuador, crafted the basic text of Rigoberta's House Faces South (a reference to Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemala's Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist) in three days. The company worked with it for the next two months.

The play opens with Rigoberta (Veronica Castillo) dressed as a little girl. She follows her own hand, which dips and dives through the air like a lost kite and declares, "The world wasn't always a pair of hands. Today, the world doesn't have fingers." Her parents (Lucero Millan and Rene Medina) sit on one side of the stage -- stiff, erect, mouths open, staring blankly -- and her grandmother (Alicia I. Pilarte) is a monolithic form in the background. Rigoberta is one of the thousands of children senselessly caught in the crossfire of the Sandinista violence of the '70s. As in Sartre's No Exit, each character is living out his own death. The players of Teatro Justo Rufino Garay exhibit a physical discipline and an artistic attitude that don't just imitate life but confront it. This play is an example of physical and collective theater at their best. Mundane gestures such as Rigoberta jumping up and down or her mother combing her hair are repeated to the point of being unfathomable, rhythmic, absurd, and haunting.

In Teatro Malayerba's Octopuses' Garden, the world of memory repeatedly eclipses the world of dreams through José (Santiago Villacís), an amnesiac wandering around a country he doesn't feel is his. José goes to an abandoned beach, where he must dream to recover his memory and a connection to his homeland. While incorporating a range of Ecuadorian cultural influences, from European to indigenous, the play sometimes feels like an epic that hasn't had time to mature fully. Still, Vargas's script shines through a somewhat-hurried and muddled production, and actress Randi Krarup gives a memorable performance as Antonia, José's enigmatic guide through the realm of the subconscious.

Besides his influence on Vargas, Lorca makes other appearances in the festival. He shows up as himself in Teatro del Temple's Buñuel, Lorca, and Dalí, written by Alfonso Plou and directed by Carlos Martín, and later in the Mladinsko Theatre's contemporary adaptation of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. In the latter work, director Matjaz Pograjc's clever set design and multimedia production crams so much onto one oddly compartmentalized stage that the acting is at times nearly overwhelmed. Disturbing video images shadow the lives of five Slovenian daughters and their widowed mother, who slip, slither, climb, and slide in and out of drawers, closets, and trunks, making for a dark, intriguing, and unquestionably contemporary rendition.

Spain's Teatro del Temple produces a highly convincing Lorca (Francisco Fraguas) and Dalí (David Ardid). This troupe also uses video, mostly as another dimension of backdrop. Through a powerful and steady stream of image, farce, and dialogue, the play addresses many historical questions, such as the Catholic Church's involvement in the Spanish Civil War and in the death of Lorca.

The festival's works for children might not have dealt with such powerful subject matter, but two children's plays did manage to make an impression on this grown-up. Good children's theater doesn't tap into the child in us; it enters our subconscious and retrieves our sense of adventure, curiosity, and spontaneity. Teatro Avante's The Fair of Discoveries, cowritten by Avante's Lilliam Vega and Cuba-based scholar/playwright Raquel Carrió, does just that. The framing device is deceptively simple: Four minstrels set out to tell the story of Galileo Galilei (Luis Alberto García), the famous mathematician, physicist, and astronomer whose revolutionary discoveries eventually transformed the medieval view of the world in favor of new, scientific principles.

Vega and Carrió deftly craft the script -- it is both metaphorical and metaphysical -- and the production is superbly integrated thanks to Vega's skillful direction. Ernesto García's sensational sound effects and music (a mix of classical, hip-hop, salsa, and more) give the production a lively, interactive appeal. Each minstrel represents a different heavenly body, with sun (Jorge Hernández), moon (Lourdes Simón), stars (Jacqueline Briceño), and earth (Vega) imaginatively personified by their respective actors. Without feeling too educational or allegorical, the play gives the impression that maybe we adults need more of a reminder than the children that the world is round and the galaxies don't revolve around us.

At the Prometeo company's offering for young audiences, the drama begins before you enter the theater. In the case of La Farsa Maravillosa del Gato con Botas ("Puss in Boots"), which will run for more than a month after the festival's conclusion, a fairy godmother (Cristina Restrepo) waves her magic wand toward would-be theatergoers, filling the intimate space with excitement and magic from the outset. Carefully and playfully crafted into verse, the classic plot (in which property and love are inextricably bound and a downtrodden young man must defeat a monster to win his princess) is closely preserved -- perhaps too much so. While the play is delightful and entertaining, the playwright and director have not entirely seized the opportunity to create something new and original that might speak to young people more intimately. With the help of Ramón Alejandro's costume design and Alfredo Triff's original musical score, the show gives us glimpses of a hypochondriac king; a prince-to-be who sports a frilly, white tutu; and a monster reminiscent of rapper Dr. Dre, but these enticing possibilities are never fully developed.

Javier Siut, a regular player with Prometeo, always brings innovative and quirky qualities to his roles; his jumpy, ill-mannered king is no exception, from his gold-lamé pants to his bouts with a royal migraine, indigestion, and so on. Likewise, Juan Pablo Zapata has definitely gotten in touch with his inner feline. He makes the most of the small stage space by crawling, stretching, leaping, and meowing to hilarious effect.

The shortcomings of La Farsa aside, Prometeo and Teatro Avante have demonstrated an aptitude for children's theater. The cozy settings and versatile actors of both troupes lend themselves well to the form. Here's hoping their festival shows won't be the last kids' plays they produce.

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Mia Leonin

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