Language is a funny thing. On one long distance bus ride in Mexico, I had the pleasure of seeing Fast Five (Rápidos y Furiosos 5) dubbed into Spanish; they took the liberty of also dubbing Don Omar and Tego Calderón’s dialogue from Puerto Rican Spanish to “normal” Spanish.
Ostensible Spanish speakers might have benefitted from similar treatment in Gala Hispanic Theatre’s new production, Cabaret Barroco, which glosses over its antiquated dialogue with ribald physical humor. Lest you think of speakeasies or Moulin Rouge, the cabaret here refers to a series of entremesas, or skits, from 17th century Spain, back when people didn’t know how to speak Spanish properly. As with Shakespearean English, the rapid-fire couplets that make up much of the back-and-forth can be poetic but are often confusing. For non-Spanish speakers, there are English surtitles that dilute much of the poetry but get the point across, insofar as these skits have a point, which they sometimes do.
The theme that unites these disparate skits is el amor, which seems to be old Castilian for sadism. Love in Spain’s Golden Age apparently consisted of horrible people doing cruel things to others for the sheer fun of it, as if Cervantes was a screenwriter for It’s Only Sunny in Philadelphia. The most entertaining, El Toreador by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, tells of a lovestruck young man who seeks the affection of a lady; upon hearing his serenade, she tells him he must enter the bullring and fight to the death if he wants a date.
Others don’t make quite as much sense, being built around a romantic premise but lacking much of a story arc or punchline. The cast, a talented mix of Gala regulars and actors associated with Gala’s longtime partner company in Spain, Acción Sur, make up for the flimsy plots with song and dance, gratuitous mugging, flirting, and generally bawdy behavior. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and director José Luis Arreano García’s manic pacing keeps things from dragging too much. If they do, well, at least it’s only a few minutes before you’re on to the next skit.
For a production with the word “baroque” in its title, Cabaret Barroco is far from extravagant, a stripped down production with only the most basic stage design and props (and, unfortunately, piped-in music). And for one that celebrates Spain’s Golden Age, the works it presents are modest and obscure, a world apart from Don Quixote or the comedias of Lope de Vega. Irreverent, populated by scoundrels, and appealing to our basest desires, entremesas had little to offer in terms of history, art, or social critique of the era. Their main attraction, it seems, is the wordplay. And good luck with that.
The show runs at Gala Hispanic Theatre to Oct. 6.