Spanish Qualms: Franco’s troops don’t appreciate Carmela and Paulino’s variety act.
Spanish Qualms: Franco’s troops don’t appreciate Carmela and Paulino’s variety act.

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There’s just one problem with the acting in ¡Ay, Carmela!, the tragicomedy opening GALA Hispanic Theatre’s season: The show’s two stars are so good, you won’t want to take your eyes of them.

And therefore, unless you speak Spanish, you won’t know what the hell these actors are saying, because you won’t be inclined to read the supertitles hanging on either side of the stage. I’d tell you it doesn’t matter—that every grimace or arched eyebrow conveys the same meaning as three PowerPoint slides—but it does matter, because the topics at hand are the Spanish Civil War, where we go when we die, and what makes two people fall so in love that one would go mad without the other. That’s the lose-lose logistical situation for English speakers at what is otherwise a bloody-bullfight winner of a production.

More than anything else, ¡Ay, Carmela! represents smart programming. The recession-troubled GALA has invested in a small-scale show that it can put on well, especially with a little help from the Spanish embassy and its Ministry of Culture. Simple sets and quality sound design convince the audience we’re inside a rundown Spanish theater, circa 1938. And GALA only has to pay two actors—but what a pair to pay.

Diego Mariani, a GALA veteran, and Spanish newcomer Mona Martinez inhabit characters they’ve been impeccably trained to play. Martinez has an extensive background in Spanish dance, and Martinez has traveled the world as a mime. Together onstage, they’re vaudeville duo Paulino and Carmela, an operetta singer and flamenco dancer who have accidentally traveled into Fascist-held territory.

That the performance they put on for Franco’s troops will not go well is a given from the get-go. The play opens with Paulino attempting to drown his sorrows with a carafe of wine and a broken gramophone playing the Spanish folk song, “¡Ay, Carmela!”

Carmela herself sits at stage left, observing her grieving husband. She rises to join him, but rather than embrace and exchange tearful entreaties, the couple immediately bickers about the afterlife whence she’s come. It’s an “arid” place, she tells him, full of people who scratch themselves as though they’ve got scabies. And there’s this one tall, dark, and handsome guy with his head split open who tells Carmela she has a “beautiful tush.”

“What’s the world coming to!” Paulino exclaims, beside himself with jealously. Grief is secondary to some guy in heaven flirting with his dead wife. There’s heartbreaking goofball chemistry here, not unlike Roberto Benigni and his real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi in Life is Beautiful. Remember that scene when, amid a party’s chaos, they smooch under the table? These two lovers would get themselves into a similar fix.

And they do. The action flashes back and forth between the aftermath, when dead Carmela returns to visit the depressed Paulino, and their rehearsals and performance of a variety show for the international brigade.

¡Ay, Carmela! has been hit in the Spanish-speaking world since its 1987 premiere, and it’s practically a clinic on how to craft a two-actor play. Playwright José Sanchis Sinisterra understands, for example, that additional characters are needed offstage. In Act 1, we get the gay Italian lieutenant serving as a one-man tech crew. (Carmela: “He must have wandered off…with that hairdresser.”) In Act 2, the GALA audience stands in for the troops. (Carmela: “There are so many Moors out there, we should make them couscous.”)

Plays that end with a shooting don’t get much funnier than this. That’s in part due to the careful translation by Catalina Botello and Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz. It’s not until the climax and denouement that ignorance of Spanish politics and culture becomes a barrier to grasping what’s happening onstage. Read the inadequate synopsis, and know that “¡Ay, Carmela!” (the song) became an anthem for Republican forces fighting against Franco in a complex, bloody conflict. ¡Ay, Carmela! (the play) is a well-acted allegorical love story. That much anyone can understand.