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The staff at the cheerfully chaotic, rural Argentine Grill, imagined by playwrights Roberto Cossa and Mauricio Kartun in their expatriate comedy Lejos de Aquí (Far From Here), is afflicted with what you’d have to call grass-is-greener syndrome. All are desperate to be somewherevirtually anywhereelse, despite the fact that wanderlust is what got them to this godforsaken spot outside Madrid in the first place.
Waitress Mercedes (Vera Soltero), who traded boredom at home for boredom working with immigrant relatives, can scarcely hear orders, so wrapped up is she in headset language lessons she apparently thinks will confer immunity to all borders. “If I knew how to speak English,” she chirps blithely, “I’d be in London or Japan. Or Germany.” Her aunt Estela (Ruth Jasiuk), who emigrated 22 years ago from Argentina, now spends much of her day peering longingly out the window at the highway, sipping wine and muttering the destinations of passing buses. Her brother Lorenzo (Mario Marcel) has booked passage home to Buenos Aires, and seems confident that he’ll make it, though every time he heads for the airport, fatein the form of taxi breakdowns, visa difficulties, and, well, just plain fateintervenes.
Slightly more content in Spain, but hardly geographically committed, are Estela’s husband Manolo (Orlando Rossardi) who is considering switching the restaurant’s menu to Italian cuisine, and his current chef, who goes by the name Mejicano (Marcos Montero) though he’s actually from Colombia by way of New York.
Dyspeptic and very funny in the play’s early stages, these folks are the lumps in the melting pot that is contemporary Europe. Spanish-speaking without being Spanish, they are no more assimilated in their new home outside Madrid than most first-generation immigrants in the U.S. They’d likely strike audiences as terribly sad were they not so adept at articulating and exploding stereotypes.
Their authors are among Argentina’s most celebratedCossa a major figure since the mid-’60s, Kartun a comparative youngster whose work in the ’70s and ’80s has been collected in volumes whose titles (Civilization or Barbarism? and Hunger Feeds Everything) reflect the turbulence of the country during that period. In 1982, the two playwrights participated in Buenos Aires’ Teatro Abierto (Open Theater), a concerted effort by dramatists, actors, and directors to bring theater to the Argentine public despite opposition from the country’s military dictatorship. At about the same time, tens of thousands of Argentine citizens were emigrating to other countries. Some estimates place the number living abroad today at 1.5 million, nearly 5 percent of the nation’s population.
All of which is by way of noting that the humor of Lejos de Aquí is not unalloyed. There is a dark subtext to the jests of these disparaging Latinos, and indeed to the authors’ punch lines about the migrating Eastern Europeans who are beginning to compete with them for space in the EU. When Manolo accuses his wife of drinking too much because she’s incapable of living in the First World, her response”Don’t kid yourself…whoever’s serving the tables is always living in the Third World”reflects the clear-eyed worldview behind the authors’ jokes.
Still, the evening, which Teatro de la Luna is performing in Spanish (with headset English provided on Friday and Saturday nights), is funny enough in translation to suggest that the howlsand in the evening’s last scenes, the snifflesof the mostly Spanish-speaking audience are fully justified. Director Agustín Núñez, whose program bio lists credits in so many countries that he practically qualifies as a one-man theatrical U.N., has staged the evening briskly and with high style on a multilevel setting he also designed. Rodney Wallace’s dappled lighting and Nucky Walder’s character-defining costumes are sure assets. And the actors are not only sharp and funny, but (according to my Latina theatergoing companion) their hybrid accents are right on the money, even the chef’s polyglot Colombian/Mexican/
New York combination.
It has, I note with some astonishment, been seven years since Washington Shakespeare Company’s No Exit put the Gunston Arts Center on the theatrical map. Since then, WSC and its wildly successful cousin, Signature Theatre, have so succeeded in luring D.C. theatergoers south of the Potomac that they’ve been able to open their own warehouse theaters elsewhere in Arlington, a testament to the long-term success of the county’s arts policies. With the steadily improving work of Teatro de la Luna over the past few seasons, it may just be time to add another company name to the roster of Gunston success stories.
Elizabeth Perry’s Sun Flower introduces its 19th-century protagonist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with an expository burp”Wife…mother of seven…activist…advocate…one of the great women of all time…the grand old lady of suffrage”delivered by her friend and women’s movement co-founder Susan B. Anthony. It’s just the sort of pre-emptive, here’s-why-you-should-pay-attention opening sally one might hear at a Historical Society lecture, and it turns out to be entirely in keeping with the earnest, theatrically inert evening that follows.
An independently produced one-woman show with off-Broadway ambitions, Sun Flower booked Arena Stage’s Old Vat Room at a time when it seemed a battle would be raging this spring over a statue of suffragists Stanton, Anthony, and Lucretia Mott that’s been facing a basement wall on Capitol Hill for three decades. Women’s advocates wanted the statue placed in the Capitol rotunda where its stern-visaged activists could stand as a reminder of feminism’s past. Given the conservative bent of the current congress, they expected a fight. Instead, the move was unopposed and no confrontation materialized.
Nor does one rear its dramatically necessary head in the Old Vat Room, where Stanton’s stands on the abolition of slavery, voting rights for women, and the acceptability of ladies’ bloomers go essentially undisputed. The author wrote Sun Flower as a vehicle for herself, and while she’s made it an acting challenge by surrounding her protagonist with some two dozen minor characters who must be afforded differing vocal inflections and accents, they all seem to agree on most issues, which lends the evening a vaguely pep-rallyish air.
Still, after a deadly first half-hour that feels like a chirpily delivered history lesson, things do liven up a bit. Director Anita Khanzadian sends Perry bounding from chair to podium to the shadows behind a column in search of both visual variety and the candies that temporarily sate Stanton’s sweet tooth. And though plot points get left in the lurchhow Stanton’s housekeeper amassed $1 million to bequeath to the women’s movement is one of many head-scratchersPerry proves reasonably engaging when she’s not in cheerleader mode. Tweaking the reputations of celebrated 19th-century male figures, she’s especially good company, as in a wryly delivered take on the herb-and-tree-bark soup served at Walden Pond: “I understand Mr. Thoreau walks three miles to his mother’s home every day…for lunch.”
More often than not, though, playwright Perry doesn’t provide actress Perry with wordplay worthy of a protagonist savvy enough to have authored Susan B. Anthony’s best speeches. At times, in fact, the evening seems to labor consciously to avoid cleverness. Recounting that a teenage Stanton, when asked by a boyfriend whether she loved him, had burbled “Yes!” and spurred her horse “down the bridle path,” all the emphasis is on that “Yes!” No one associated with Sun Flower even seems to hear, let alone want to make hay with, the “bridal” pun that will strike the ear of every audience member.CP