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What do two actors from Cuba bring that director Hugo Medrano can’t get here? Complexity.

Director Hugo Medrano sucks a terse drag from cigarette No. 5. It’s 45 minutes into rehearsals, and Medrano has already traveled several miles within a space of 10 yards. He darts along GALA Hispanic Theatre’s stage, back and forth. He climbs into random seats, ensuring that his artistic vision unfolds properly.

“Time out,” he calls, in English, to the actors onstage. “Hold it,” he says in Spanish. He points to an actress. “You must place the stool closer to the center.” Don Juan lords over the stage. His regal cape flows in syncopated rhythm to the dialogue. It’s a flawless scene. But Medrano doesn’t see it that way.

“My actors have to produce,” he says later on. “If they don’t, they’re going to hear about it.”

This play, El Burlador de Sevilla (The Seducer of Seville), is scheduled to begin its run Feb. 24 at GALA, in Mount Pleasant. This production, even more than Medrano’s others, must be perfect. Medrano has to justify the money spent, the politics evaded, and the complexity inherent in Tirso de Molina’s 17th-century masterpiece.

Broselianda Hernandez rushes out on stage urgently. “Fuego! Fuego!” she screams—”Fire! Fire!”—as she writhes in emotional pain, clutching her long black hair. She delivers the line passionately; the other actors, scattered throughout the auditorium, perk up. Hernandez’s Tisbea, one of Don Juan’s spurned lovers, believes she has been compromised. She’s a victim of Don Juan’s charm.

Medrano cuts her off, leaps up onstage, and huddles with the actors. The scene begins again. The process will repeat seven or eight times.

Medrano suffers from the pathology of perfection. He can afford to. His featured stars, Hernandez and Harold Ruiz, who portrays Don Juan, are used to the discipline—they have come here from Cuba. On ordinary days, they are employees of the state, bound to the whims and politics of Cuban bureaucrats. For the next three months, they will be working as volunteer actors at GALA, living on a $35 per diem (plus housing and airfare); federal law forbids most commercial transactions with Cuban nationals. For the chance to experience the “whiff of freedom,” as Texas Gov. George W. Bush has called it, they will perform for free.

And they rate among the finest actors Medrano could hope for. “Most young Cuban actors have a tremendous amount of experience,” he says. “When you put them in a dramatic situation, they respond dramatically. With American actors, you usually have to explain these things.”

Ruiz and Hernandez, like their Red hermanos back home, didn’t simply study acting for five years. The state provided them with a top-shelf theatrical education: movement, voice, theater history—even fencing. So later on, when Hernandez speaks casually of Moliere, Camus, and the psychological complexity of Don Juan, it doesn’t seem so strange to them.

Both actors have an expert grasp of the material. They can communicate Medrano’s vision of Don Juan because they know Tirso’s Don Juan even better than they should—for this incarnation of Don Juan, though the first recorded in literature, is also among the most obscure.

Sacred Heart Elementary School, a small Catholic school, seems an unlikely venue for a play about lust, sexual conquest, and a cryptic, psychopathic rogue like Don Juan. In 1984, Medrano, slightly down and out, was trudging through the garbage on the 1600 block of Park Road NW and happened to notice the semi-detached auditorium on the school grounds.

His vision for a Kennedy Center-style Latino theater house was going nowhere fast in the home he had built for it at 7th and E Streets NW. People weren’t coming downtown after hours in the early ’80s. Those District politicians who fancied themselves art patrons attempted, in vain, to create an art scene there. The sinking ship that was the Lansburgh Project (then a monument to political mismanagement, now a thriving arts district) was bringing GALA down with it.

Within a year, Medrano had persuaded the school to lease him the space. This June, 15 years on, Medrano, now 56, will start the process over again. GALA’s lease is set to expire, and despite Medrano’s insistence that GALA is inextricably tied to the Mt. Pleasant “barrio,” the school wants the space back. So, along with his directing duties, the theater’s founder will squeeze in a few hours of venue-shopping over the course of the next several months.

But the move is not until late spring. Until then, the space is still Medrano’s workshop, with his identity stamped on it. The offices, the seats, frontstage, and backstage are all smoking areas. English is almost never spoken. The hours of operation can sometimes be erratic: one day closed, the next open. It is, after all, a community theater—not to say unprofessional, just unpretentious. GALA mounts plays in both Spanish and English and provides simultaneous translation for each show.

The exaggerated sighs and expressions in an English-language stage production reinforce the notion of theater as a haven for “luvvies”—the British expression for overly earnest performers. A production staged in a foreign language often gives off an aura of sophistication. It underlines a uniquely American inferiority complex regarding foreign masterworks. So watching the actors at GALA makes you feel smart. The acting doesn’t feel contrived—partly because of the language, partly because Medrano won’t allow it.

Medrano himself is a trained actor. He is best-known for his GALA portrayal of Molina, the gay window dresser that William Hurt portrayed in the film version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Medrano earned a Helen Hayes Award for that performance. Originally from Argentina, Medrano arrived in Washington in the early ’70s via Madrid, where he worked as a successful stage actor. In Washington, he became a busboy.

He met his wife (and professional partner), Rebecca Read Medrano, shortly after arriving in D.C., at a bilingual theater for children. A few years later, in 1976, they founded GALA (short for Grupo de Artistas Latinoamericanas). They staged early productions on the ground floor of their Adams Morgan town house. Over the next several years, the company moved around the city before settling at its present location in Mount Pleasant. By 1993, Medrano was making regular visits to Cuba, hoping to recruit actors-in-residence for GALA.

In 1996, the company mounted Strawberry and Chocolate, a Cuban play about the friendship between two young men. For that production, Medrano recruited two Cuban actors. The production stirred enough controversy among the more anti-Cuba circles of Washington to prompt one GALA board member to resign. Still, the play opened to positive reviews and gave Medrano the confidence to pursue the Cuba angle with renewed vigor.

After that production, a few lofty awards, and performances at international festivals, GALA has emerged, in its own way, as the sort of Kennedy Center for Latinos that Medrano envisioned. The theater runs on a small budget; its money comes primarily from cultural foundations. Most rehearsals take place without heating, so space heaters are hauled in and cigarettes keep fingertips warm. The product matters—not the pomp.

Ruiz, 28, cuts an awkward Don Juan. With his dark feathered hair and long, lanky build, you might imagine Ruiz wearing the loose football jersey fashionable in the early ’80s. Ruiz has a geeky, man-child charm. Yet he manages to wield considerable command over the character, to endow Don Juan with a convincing presence.

“Tirso’s Don Juan is a different one,” Ruiz says. “He’s less restrained, more Machiavellian, in your face, cynical, dark. And yet there’s another side to him. He is also kind of virtuous and a bit of a dandy.”

The name Don Juan has come to mean “ladies’ man” in the popular consciousness, largely because of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Moliere’s Dom Juan, and Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell. Tirso’s protagonist, however, is an antihero, offering little to desire. He is greedy, deceptive, cruel, hedonistic, and completely unremorseful. He woos four young women away from their lovers and neighbors, only to leave them heartbroken, high, and dry. But, for Tirso, Don Juan’s conquests satisfied an intellectual hunger rather than a sexual one.

So complex and loathsome is this Don Juan that academics, psychoanalysts, and literary scholars have devoted mountains of prose to deconstructing the character. Otto Rank, a student of Freud, spoke of Don Juan’s “Oedipus complex,” relating his abusive behavior toward women to an unconscious search for maternal love. Gonzalo LaFora, a Spanish neuropathologist, believed Don Juan displayed all the signs of a clinical psychopath.

“Tirso wanted to make a Don Juan that translates across time,” says Medrano. “He’s a very modern man: tricky, deceptive, and a bit schizophrenic.”

“I have tried to explore some of Don Juan’s characteristics [offstage],” says Ruiz earnestly. He speaks with a sincerity that is increasingly rare—much like the language of Communism. Cuba, he insists, grants actors a considerable degree of freedom.

“There is a lot of liberty in Cuba,” Ruiz says. “The theater is one of the most liberal places around—a place of cultural expression.” He concedes that the state is politically charged, but that politics rarely enters the world of theater. “We do plays that criticize the system,” he says proudly.

But can he do a play that criticizes Castro?

“No. You can’t do that,” he says.

Does he respect Castro?

Pregnant pause. “Er.” Laugh. Shift. Breath. Sigh. Ruiz is uncomfortable with the question. It’s a question—an indignity—that many Cubans must confront when pressed by North Americans.

“[Castro] is very respected, so it goes beyond politics,” Hernandez, 35, chimes in to break the tension. “Fidel is impressive, elegant, strong. The history of the revolution is a beautiful one. And, under Castro, there were some important achievements, like education and the health system.”

Hernandez even relates a recent liberating experience, related to a performance in Caligula: The theater advertised the play on a billboard in Havana. “CALIGULA” screamed down on the puzzled Cuban passers-by. Large signs, she explains, are reserved for revolutionary slogans. In this case, an exception was made. And despite the play’s political undertones, she says excitedly, the state didn’t change a word of the text.

Nor did the state interfere with the two actors’ visit in the midst of the international fight over the young refugee Elian Gonzalez. That struggle continues to inflame the already miserable U.S.-Cuban relationship. While Elian—the Cuban boy found at sea—walks around Disney World draped in gold chains, celebrated as a near-messenger-from-God, the actors, like many people on both sides of the Straits of Florida, lament the politics that have disrupted the life of an otherwise normal boy.

But Ruiz and Hernandez have better things to do than weigh in on the current state of world affairs. Such as their careers: Hernandez also does films. She appeared in the 1997 Spanish film Things I Left in Havana. The movie, about three sisters who leave Havana to move in with an aunt in Madrid, won the Silver Spike at the 1997 Valladolid Film Festival. And Ruiz is a member of the most prestigious repertory theater in Havana. So neither actor is expected to pull a baseball-star-style defection.

Still, there is talk at the theater of extending their visas for a few more weeks, especially if the show’s a success. Hernandez says she wouldn’t mind, although Washington doesn’t really appeal to her cosmopolitan sensibilities. “I’m interested in cafes and looking at people,” she says, “and there isn’t anything like that here.” Ruiz also prefers the hustle and charm of Old Havana. At the same time, he speaks of this country like an Old World immigrant passing through Ellis Island. “I get a sense of freedom here,” he says, “[a sense] of greatness, and I love being in the political capital of the world.” CP

El Burlador de Sevilla opens Feb. 24 and runs through April 2 at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Call (202) 234-7174 for ticket information.