CASA Latin American Theatre Festival 2011

Oval House Theatre

CASA Latin American Theatre Festival 2011 logo

El Guante y la Piedra
Written and performed by Quique Fernandez, presented by Teatro Secreto (Argentina)
A Galinha Decolgada
Adapted from Horacio Quiroga, presented by Persona Compania de Teatro & Teatro em Tramite (Brazil)

Two shows, one in Spanish, one in Portugese, post-show talks, live music, Mexican beer and a plate of South America food. Not a review of one, or even two plays, this is a review of an entire experience - that of the CASA Latin American Theatre Festival.

CASA is a not-for-profit theatre company run by Latin American and British volunteers, some theatre professionals, some not. Their aim is to bring Latin American Theatre to our shores and to bring Brits together with Latin Americans to experience it. So far it appears this mission has been very successful indeed, achieving rave reviews in previous years, allowing them to branch out this year by touring to the Edinburgh Fringe 2011. They also plan to set up a youth theatre, radio show, and internships to provide experience for budding theatre professionals.

This year the CASA Latin American Theatre Festival returned with eight shows, in Spanish, English and Portuguese, promising something for everyone and all ages. Alongside the shows there were workshops, discussions, art exhibitions, and opportunities to meet the artists, all running at the Oval House Theatre between 17th and 23rd October.

From the moment you enter the building the senses are struck by colour. Everywhere is hung brightly coloured bunting and streamers. A musician strums on a brightly patterned electric guitar, mostly inaudible over the loud chatter of friends greeting, laughing and ordering beer with at least three languages circulating round the room.

But to the plays. Two one-hour shows, separated by an authentic plate of South American spicy chicken and rice in the cafe.

El Guante y la Piedra

Do we choose to be obsessed with some things? Can we choose to be obsessed with something? Do we choose anything that we do in life? And what, therefore, is our fault?

Inthis one-man show spoken in Spanish with English surtitles we meet Nelson. Nelson is an Argentinian boxer living in France, nicknamed The Monkey. He tells us his life-story, seemingly from his changing room, and asks, nay pleads these questions as he examines how his life has been affected by the choices he has made: a boxing career; tango lessons; a gutsy trip to Rouen

The writing is witty though never frivolous, instead remaining within a sense of foreboding. Like a slowly dripping tap Nelson reveals clues as to the true gravity of his situation. Your reaction will depend upon how you feel about this question of choice.

Fernandez's stunning performance, both in terms of character and physicality, provides this paced energy to the climax. With expert command of his body (it is hard to dance badly on purpose but his novice tango is hilarious) he creates physical personae for each of his advisors. We meet the gruff and droopy-faced, Godfather-esque mentor who urges him to go to tango lessons right through to the sultry hip-wiggling teacher who causes him to go back. Isolated moments of movement between monologues show spurring, tango and a monkey impersonation melded together into one movement seamlessly and beautifully. A dance sequence sees a hoody seemingly come alive as Justine, his tango teacher and lover.

Unfortunately, for those non-Spanish speakers in the audience this will all have been slightly overshadowed by the poor surtitling. Often grammatically incorrect with spelling mistakes, they leave one wondering how faithful to the Spanish text they were and what we might be missing. To make matters worse, they were behind the speech most of the time, sometimes rushing to catch up five slides at a time. This made for stressful viewing, and a slight neck ache.

In comparison to the play's other achievements it almost feels selfish and petty as a non-Spanish speaker to complain of this fault. But, if CASA's mission statement to "bring Latin American theatre to UK audiences" is to continue to be successful, then this is something that must be addressed.

However, with his ability for story telling, even with shaky surtitling Fernandez proves the point that Nelson's story is not special, not out of the ordinary, not heroic. He is one of many who feel out of place, who are bucked by the system and who struggle to come to terms with the consequences of their actions, whether they are conscious or not. And like many others, in the final moments he turns his back, defeated. The lights fade and then he is gone, like he was never there at all.

A Galinha Decolgada

Grotesque. That is one of very few words to describe this play. Beautiful, yet grotesque. But this is not to do it a disservice. A story told mostly through visual imagery with narration, this is a simply stunning performance. But for anybody who has ever loved a child, or anybody who has ever loved anything at all, this is difficult viewing.

The scene is set immediately at the opening. Four stuffed hessian sacks dressed as boys sit on a bench. Puppet or doll does not seem the right word for these things. Both would suggest they have characters, personalities. But these sacks have nothing. They are portraying the mentally disabled children of the parents who stand behind. For these parents, married couple Mazzini-Ferraz, rag doll seems the right description. Pale faces, gormless looks, a half-empty feeling of once cherished now unloved.

A ghost-like girl dressed all in white clutching her own rag doll, together akin to something not out of place in a horror movie, begins to describe the story. How this family used to be full of love and hope. The rest of the story is told through flashbacks using tableau and montage to create vivid imagery. All the while the girl walks amongst them unnoticed, sometimes taking her place behind an empty picture frame, seemingly controlling the action on stage with wooden dolls representing the family.

The story goes that a happily newly-wed couple give birth to their firstborn son. They make him the centre of their universe, until one fateful night when he's 18 months old, a fever and convulsions render him completely mentally handicapped. Their second son suffers the same fate, but they care for both without tiring. However, when they are blessed with twin boys this blessing becomes a curse as they quickly succumb to the same fate as the first two. The parents' patience with the children, life and each other wears very thin.

The contrast between these two states is shown only in the movement, backed by a wide-ranging soundtrack, for the narrator shows no emotion, remaining cold and removed throughout. A jaunty scene backed by light and melodic piano music composed for the production uses props innovatively - a white scarf becomes a wedding veil, which in turn becomes a baby's blanket as the couple happily move through tableaux depicting their first stages of married life. Their rag doll make up accentuates their happy faces and laughter ripples through the audience as stereotypes such as the pacing husband in the hospital waiting room are recognised.

However, it is a different story when the parents' patience cracks. A shocking scene to the rising climax of the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony sees the married couple and their housemaid take the four boys on their backs, roughly manipulating them like the sacks that they are made of until they stay in place. Then as the music rises, they fix their wide and angry eyes upon the audience and step forward intimidatingly as the convulsions begin. The three adults fall to the floor in a fit while shaking the boys who continue to fall and flail, limp and helpless over the top.

Where the show lets down its vivid imagery is in the latter half of its story. The couple have a baby girl, who remains healthy and becomes the subject of all their love and attention. We are told in the play's billing that this is where we learn of the true reason for the parent's loveless relationship. But this doesn't become clear and does not read well alongside memories of the early marriage tableaux In fact, a 'true reason' is not even necessary - the notion of a couple driven to the edge by tragedy enough on its own. It is the unrelenting depiction of rock bottom that stays seared on the backs of your eyes all the way home.

Reviewer: Felicity Turner

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