The three sisters in Lincoln Center Festival 2007 this month will be played by a trio of Argentine men. The play is camouflaged further by a new title: Un Hombre que se ahoga, which is a partial quote credited to the Swiss Renaissance painter-printmaker, Urs Graf (to wit: "Un hombre que se ahoga espia a una mujer que se mata," meaning "a man who drowns detects a woman who kills herself").
You might deduce from the above that you are light-years away from Anton Chekhov's sad little family unit on the precipice of 20th-century progress, but you would be rushing to judgment — and the wrong judgment at that, says Olga Garay, the consultant-curator who helped select it as one of four world-class productions representing Spanish-language theater at the Festival.
Not that Garay didn't initially approach the piece with some understandable trepidation. "When I first went to see it, I thought, 'Oh, this is sort of a weird conceit,'" she candidly confesses. "But, once you get into the piece — very quickly within, like, five or ten minutes — you discover how compelling this is. The acting is first-rate, which is consistent with what I know of Argentine work — the quality of the acting is extraordinary — and so I thought that it was a very successful endeavor in terms of the results of what he got."
"He" is Daniel Veronese, the former artistic director of Argentina's celebrated theater company El Periférico de Objetos, who directed, designed, and adapted this unusual spin on Chekhov. It was his love of good acting that made him do what he did, contends Garay.
"Basically, what Veronese told me was that he wanted to work with the best actors in Argentina so he chose the actors before deciding what piece he wanted to do. When he settled on Chekhov — and, specifically, The Three Sisters — he realized that the actors he had asked to participate in this endeavor didn't fit the gender of the characters in The Three Sisters so he reread the piece and determined that it was not necessarily rooted in gender, and he did a gender reversal. Here, it's the women who make the decisions and the men who wait."
The Chilean entry into the Festival — Gemelos by Santiago's Compañìa Teatro Cinema — is, like Argentina's Proyecto Chejov, offering, a North American premiere for the Festival. And it too explores a completely different culture, this one borrowing considerably more than a page from The Notebook, the 1986 novel that begins a much-acclaimed trilogy by Hungarian writer Agota Kristof. Critics have characterized the book as a blend of Hansel and Gretel and Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird.
All the characters here are performed by a cast of three — Laura Pizarro and Juan Carlos Zagal, who adapted and direct the piece, and Diego Fontecillo. And they do it in a forced perspective that gives the illusion that they are puppet-size.
The plot tells of twin boys sent to live with their grandmother for protection from the horrors of war. According to Garay: "It's a very physical ensemble. They use masks and film techniques and have traditionally been inspired by literature throughout the world — not just in Chile — as a source, so this show is in keeping with their aesthetic vision."
Another country, another culture heard from: De monstruos y prodigios: La historia de los castrati from the Mexico City-based Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes is the only opus in the mix not making its North American bow, but its new resurrection (directed by Claudio Valdés Kuri, who co-adapted the play with Jorge Kuri from Patrick Barbier's 1996 book, The History of the Castrati) is considerably more elaborate than the "chamber version" that the International Hispanic Theatre Festival pulled off at The Duke on 42nd Street Theatre in 2001.
In 90 minutes, the drama explores the practice of castration which was introduced by a Neapolitan barber-surgeon in the early 1700s [sic]. "It's a very funny, irreverent, poignant look at this barbaric practice of castrating young boys to keep their voices from deepening."
The third and last North American premiere in The Festival's Spanish-language showcase hails from Centro Dramático Nacional: Divinas palabras (Divine Words), an epic story by Ramón del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936), whom Garay calls "one of the building blocks of the whole Spanish dramatic scene. He's rarely staged because his plays tend to be huge in terms of cast and scope." Written for 40 actors, Divinas palabras is performed by a busy band of 23.
"We are very fortunate that this company, which is the National Theater of Spain, decided to take on this gargantuan project and make it an absolutely astonishing production," Garay says. Although the play doesn't venture beyond its own nationalistic borders — it's set in Galicia, the northwestern province of Spain where the author was born — this doesn't keep Garay from getting otherworldly vibes. "The root word of Galicia is 'Gaelic' so it reminded me very much of Irish plays — that sort of rustic, church-ruled, peasant poverty.
"It's set in a poor rural village where the mother of a hydrocephalic dwarf dies and he becomes the object in a tug-of-war between his brother's wife and an aunt, both of whom want to take ownership of him. You wonder why that would be? Because they take him to fairs and people give alms to him," Garay explains. "The women are moved not by pity but by economic self-interest — he's a cash cow. The subtext is about morality and personal freedom."
"My hope is that there will be enough popular and critical success with this summer's work that the Festival will continue to prioritize it. After all, 30 percent of the city of New York is made up of Spanish-speaking people, and Lincoln Center could really become an important arbiter of the best work that is being created in the Spanish-speaking world."
Harry Haun is a staff writer at Playbill.