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It’s an odd fact of artistic life that when a scrappy, struggling theater company experiences an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire transition, it often gets really hot.
Washington Stage Guild, for instance, has certainly blossomed since it was unceremoniously evicted from its Carroll Hall home by Catholic Charities last summer. The troupe’s venue-sharing arrangement with Source Theatre—a marriage of convenience (some say of desperation) that has so benefited both companies that they should consider making it permanent—has resulted in sharper, sparer, altogether more professional productions all around, from the jointly produced Hughie and St. Nicholas to WSG’s blissed-out Too True to Be Good (which shuttered last weekend after a well-deserved extension).
Similarly, Gala Hispanic Theatre, now on the verge of being expelled from the Catholic school auditorium it has long called home, is abruptly, in Cuban playwright Jose Triana’s La Noche de los Asesinos (Night of the Assassins), doing the best work in its history. It would be hard to argue that the church has done either of these companies a favor by booting them into the cold, cruel world, but, at least initially, the new challenges they’re facing appear to have focused them creatively.
At Gala, the stripped-to-essentials production design for Asesinos almost suggests that the troupe has already moved out. The stage’s brick back wall is exposed as the audience enters, its pipes and radiators the only scenic adornment except for spray-paint splotches and a ladder that ascends beyond the proscenium arch. Clustered together at one side of the stage are three mismatched chairs and a table.
The actors emerge in a dusty half-light, one of them descending the ladder’s last few rungs, as if arriving in a dank basement. And as they kick off their shoes and strip from street clothes to the simpler, nondescript outfits costumer Alessandra D’Ovidio has provided for them, they seem to shed their adult worldliness as well.
When they finally speak, after some stretching exercises and the lowering of a playground swing at center stage, they do so as adolescent siblings—Cuca (Broselianda Hernandez), Beba (Cynthia Benjamin), and Lalo (Harold Ruiz)—playing a decidedly dangerous game. They’re rehearsing the murder of their parents, articulating their anger and working through doubts and rationalizations so they can do the deed without pangs of conscience. Adopting scratchy voices to mimic their elders, they act out the frustrations that have led them to contemplate patricide, and then imagine the results their actions might have.
These kids have vivid imaginations. The scenarios they envision are gore-drenched and recrimination-studded, and they clearly have political implications (“My hands are tied. My feet are tied. I’m blindfolded….This house is my world, and it’s getting old and dirty….It’s Mom and Dad’s fault”)—which gives Gabriel Garcia’s ferociously stylized staging plenty to work with. Among the director’s more intriguing images is a spotlit Lalo grinning brightly when he drops a glistening kitchen knife and it sticks in the floorboards with a satisfying thwack. Later, while being tormented by his sisters (they’re enacting what might happen should he be caught by police), he drags himself on his stomach across a long stretch of red fabric that pools around him like blood as he claws at it.
Other images—Beba waxing judicial while sitting high in a swing; Cuca harassing her brother while pointing a hanging lamp in his eyes as if she were a police-state interrogator; Lalo helplessly upside down, suspended by his ankles—come fast and furious. The acting is sharp, the mood tense, the resonances as complicated as you care to make them.
Written in the years immediately following the Castro-led revolution against Cuba’s corrupt Batista regime, and produced to much acclaim at the 1966 Latin American Theatre Festival in Havana, the play, with its images of revolt against an oppressive established order, would obviously have resonated deeply with Communist audiences at the height of the Cold War. But at some point, Cuba’s leaders apparently realized that they were now the established order and that an obliquely written play about rebellion against authority figures could be read in various ways. For whatever reason, Asesinos fairly quickly fell out of favor in its author’s homeland.
A well-received staging of the play in Havana last year was reportedly its first Cuban mounting in more than three decades. Here in D.C., Lalo’s gripes about his parents (“They made me unfit….Mom and Dad believe that if we have a room, a bed, and three squares, that’s enough”) sound like a pretty straightforward anti-authoritarian rant, and the identity of the authoritarians doesn’t really matter.
I should mention that I heard somewhat less of the production than I saw—a problem that Spanish speakers didn’t have—and I presume that problem has been remedied for English speakers now that the show is up and running. Gala’s management long ago wearied of the Washington City Paper’s critics carping about its simultaneous translators, as a company spokesperson told me after the performance. She compared the service her troupe provides to surtitles at an opera, noting that no one reviews surtitles. Of course, operas invariably have a detailed plot synopsis in the program and could be appreciated for their music alone—which isn’t true of Gala’s shows.
I can only report that at the preview I caught of Asesinos, one of the actors doing headset translation (apparently reading the script for the very first time) threw the timing so far off that it was occasionally hard even to understand what was going on, let alone to match English voices to the performances on stage. He was replaced after intermission, and everything was crystal-clear thereafter. With practice, things have doubtless gotten better; in any event, if you’ve read this far, you now know the plot’s general drift, which I didn’t.
Even with the aural problems I was having, the show’s impact was undeniable. Asesinos is, in fact, the sharpest, bestrealized production I’ve ever seen at Gala. And because the play isn’t a popular costume drama from Spain’s golden age, it no doubt represents a box-office risk for the company. They’re brave for tackling it, and you’d be well-advised to reward that bravery by attending. CP