The jokes started as soon as I told people I was going to Buenos Aires for a week of theatregoing. "Say hello to Dr. Mengele," "Try not to disappear" and chants of "Evita, Evita" were among the charming bon voyage sentiments offered by my good and faithful friends. In truth, although I hoped for a delightful week of culture and conviviality, my ignorance of South America and vague knowledge of Argentina's ridiculously turbulent political history left me as fretful about encountering ex-Nazis, corrupt officials and Eva Peron fanatics as I was excited about visiting a city many have compared, favorably, to Paris and Manhattan.
The drive to central city from Ezeizas airport was not encouraging, with kilometer after kilometer of decaying urban sprawl attesting to a government where the money kept -- and many say continues to keep -- rolling, rolling, rolling on out. No question, much of that money is on view in the heart of the city, where opulent, world-class shops mingle with old-world cafes. But even there, the narrow streets, traffic congestion and subsequent pollution can be hard to take.
But when you look past the city landscape and into the soul of the people and the culture, Buenos Aires becomes a city taken very easily to heart. The head and the stomach are not far behind either, because Argentineans stay up long into the night talking art, politics and gossip while dining at an outrageous number of excellent, reasonably-priced restaurants. How they wake up every morning for work is beyond me, but they do -- yet you'll find the streets busy and the cafes packed with young and old well past 2 AM on weeknights.
My ostensible reason for traveling to this port city was to attend the annual ACE Awards, the Argentine equivalent of the Tonys. Held Nov. 8 at the Opera Theatre, the ceremony tended to favor foreign plays, such as Closer and Beauty And The Beast, which won for Best Play and Musical, respectively. But Argentine theatregoers could take comfort in the double victory of 82-year-old Aida Luz, who won a Best Actress in a Drama Award for Beauty Queen, as well as the Gold ACE for lifetime achievement.
Having only a tenuous hold on my high school Spanish, my own encounters with local theatre tended to favor music and spectacle over straight drama. However, courtesy of my hosts, ACE spokesperson Jorge Luis Montiel and his colleague, local director Alejandro Ullua, I was treated to a wide range of theatrical offerings, from a ballet "Messiah" to a graphically violent street drama. My first evening in town was reserved for something more commercial and high-toned: the opening night of Tango Argentino, just two weeks before the show would start its current engagement at Broadway's Gershwin Theatre. As chaotic and glamorous as a Broadway premiere, the gala featured paparazzi galore snapping photos of local celebs before the two-and-a-half hour show got under way -- an hour after the scheduled starting time. ("Everything starts late here," I was told. "It's just the way.")
The audience responded warmly to Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzolli's mix of singers, dancers and musical interludes. Alejandro, a bubbly tango aficionado, noted that Tango Argentino was unlike other similar shows playing at the same time -- such as Tangou [sic] and School For Tango -- because so many of the singers and dancers were older, wiser, sometimes wider, but infinitely more experienced.
With the show ending around midnight, it was, of course, time for a big steak dinner. Jorge, Alejandro, ACE Secretary Nora Lafon and treasurer Alicia Petti (a theatre journalist and Woody Allen fan, who often signs her columns under the pen name "Annie Hall"), my wife and I repaired to La Chacra for a typical evening repast of chorizos, wine, sparkling water ("agua con gas") and meat, meat, meat. At a later meal, opera critic Armando M. Rapallo would note that Argentine steak is far more healthy than American, since the cattle are raised more naturally and organically, and the beef needs far less fat to be tender and juicy. In fact, added Rapallo, steak in Argentina has less cholesterol than chicken. (Considering the number of herds I thinned on my trip, I can only hope so for my arteries' sake.)
An afternoon bus tour the following day concentrated more on politics than culture, though both intersected when we reached the fabled "Casa Rosada," the (literally) pink house. Adding to the fairytale atmosphere was the fact that the building is currently under renovation, and giant scrims painted to look like the pink house are hanging over and covering it. (Oh, and Evita-ites take note: Eva Peron made her famous final broadcast from the balcony of a building next door to the Casa Rosada.)
Most impressive, though, was the world-famous Obelisk, a thin, all-white edifice that serves as the ultimate landmark for the center of the city. All roads lead to the obelisk -- and all subways, too -- a sore spot for those who wish the train routes would spread out and intersect, rather than follow parallel paths that meet only at the Obelisk.
Nightfall was tango-time once more, this time in a more intimate setting. Nacha Guevara, an actress and singer best known for being hand-picked by Harold Prince to star in the South American Kiss of the Spider Woman, offered an evening of tango songs by Ernesto Discepolo. Guevara, who considers herself an actress first and singer second, said after the show the best piece of advice Hal Prince gave her was "less is more."
Guevera would win a Best Concert ACE Award for the revue, held at the Club del Vino, a huge, multi-roomed club, featuring a restaurant, a large cabaret space, a small theatre space, garden and, yes, a wine cellar. Conceived and staged by Guevara (whose Cher-like persona has made her a favorite with the local tabloids), "Nacha Sings Discepolo" featured an all girl band. Well, not quite. The usual bandoneon player was in the midst of labor pains at a local hospital, so her place was taken by -- gasp -- a man, who did just fine.
After coffee and pastry at yet another ever-so-inviting cafe the next morning, it was off to the Colon Opera House, one of the most stunning and richly-appointed opera houses in the world. Like the Met in New York, the Colon prides itself on being microphone-free. When one tired of the ubiquitous marble, the plush draperies, the giant mirrors, and the buzz of activity from auditioning singers to rehearsing dancers, one could also savor such uniquely European features as "Mourners Boxes," small, curtained seating areas where widows could go and see an opera but not be seen by prying eyes of other spectators. For the less discreet, the opera house also offered family circle "Chicken Boxes," so named for the squawking of noisy audience members stationed there.
After a morning of awe, it was a pleasure to spend the afternoon in expansive conversation with esteemed local theatre critic Ernesto Schoo (pronounced like a cross between "shaw" and "show"), whose Shavian demeanor is belied by a puckish sense of humor. Schoo's theatre indoctrination started early -- at age three, when his parents took him to a biblical epic. The spectacle stayed with him, and to this day, he retains memories of Moses being drawn out of the Nile.
Over coffee and flan with dulce de leche (a yummy butterscotch sauce that goes with nearly every dessert), Schoo also discussed a topic on the minds of everyone in the Buenos Aires entertainment biz: the actor crisis. Television production of dramas and sitcoms has shrunk dramatically over the past year, leaving little opportunity for actors to work in the medium. Worse, they're being pressured to appear on talk shows instead -- for only 44 pesos a gig. (A peso is roughly interchangeable with the American dollar.)
Organizers of the ACE Awards worried how the actors would make their disenchantment known on the broadcast and spent much of the week before the event brokering a deal. Ultimately, dozens of performers (and those sympathetic to their cause) wore plastic signs reading: "SOMOS ACTORES, QUEREMOS ACTUAR" ("We are actors, and we want to act") and many of the winners closed their ACE speeches with those words. Otherwise, the ACEs passed without incident, with the biggest cheers going to such younger oriented productions as Los Indios Estaban Cabreras ("The Indians Were Very Angry") and Los Escrushantes. The former, a satirical musical adapted and directed by Ruben Pires from a story by Augustin Cuzzani, flips the Columbus story on its head, what with three Indians deciding to leave their home to discover a new world. Lost at sea, they're rescued from the water by three Spanish fisherman who can't tell whether the new arrivals are men or fish. Even Church officials have difficulty figuring it out.
A half dozen audience members left during this sequence, which prompted me to ask director Pires if he felt this lighthearted treatment of the Church angered more conservative viewers. "No," he replied. "They may be students taking night classes. Or it's a long show, and they had to go to the bathroom." Much of the remaining audience was enthusiastic about the production, which spiced its storytelling with music drawn from African, Latin, jazz and Brazilian carnival rhythms.
Oddly and coincidentally, Los Indios shared one aspect with most of the other shows I saw in Buenos Aires -- a black-and-white color scheme set off by very limited and specific use of other hues. In Indios, Pires used red "to represent water and waves washing out blue but coming back as blood." The tango shows were elegantly appointed but often starkly monochromatic, while "Mesias," choreographed by Mauricio Wainrot for Ballet Contemporaneo, used white costumes against a pure white backdrop for its settings of dancers to excerpts from Handel's "Messiah." Red and purple dresses in an intimate tango show at La Tangoteka made a nice counterpoint to the men's basic black, but surprisingly, the most visually colorful show was set in the poorest, grimiest locale. Los Escrushantes, a violent, kinetic drama about thugs and punks and the women who alternately taunt them and cower from them, used a range of colors in the women's dresses and in the shabby apartment of two higher echelon criminals. There were audience walkouts in this "Off" hit, too, as profanity and physical abuse were played very realistically and at close range.
The biggest shock is that Los Escrushantes was written back in 1907, especially since it feels very much a part of the post-Bogosian, Mamet and Horovitz urban terrain. Director Lorenzo Quinteros, who won an ACE Award for his vigorous staging, told me the only significant change he made to the work was adding more violence. In the original version, nobody dies; in 1999 two thieves are shot to death (with one sodomized just beforehand). By the same token, surprisingly, Quinteros lessened the nudity. The original featured full-frontal; the current production shows only a tuchas, though the language and sexual derision would be pretty clear even if everyone were wearing parkas.
On a more subdued level, Griselda Gambaro's De Profesion Maternal ("The Professional Mother") proved potent for the middle-aged crowd. Starkly staged by Laura Yusem, and using filmic deep space, the brief drama told of a mother receiving a visit from the daughter she abandoned decades earlier. Eschewing teary, friction-turns-to-forgiveness Hollywood fluff, Mother stayed firm in its look at a woman who simply doesn't have it in her to be a maternal, loving parent. Catalina Speroni took home an ACE Award for playing the older woman's peace making, lesbian partner. The show itself was beaten out for Best Argentine Play by Roberto Cossa's El Saludador ("The Greeter"). The off-beat comedy featured a mother coping with a son who can never quite get the job interview he needs, and a husband who keeps running off to revolutions and losing limbs in the process.
As for the ACES themselves, speeches were brief and snafus were minimal, though CBS might take note: The show ran two and a half hours -- and there were only two musical numbers. (Full disclosure: Toward the end of the broadcast, the host called my name, mentioned that I was a visiting journalist from foreign shores, and had me stand and wave to the crowd. Ethical or not, I loved every second of it.)
Following the ACES, several of the winners, critics and attendees headed to Zum Edelweiss for a post-midnight repast, where my wife and I once again dined with critic Armando Rapallo (or, as his many colleagues and well-wishers call him, "Coco."). A rotund, spirited and jocular fellow, Coco nonetheless took the opportunity to lay some heavy history on his guests. Back in the 1970s, he'd been a film professor at the local University and was fired for subversion because he screened a Communist movie: Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin." Rapallo quickly filed a lawsuit against the government. Though a dangerous move, he says the legal gambit probably saved his life. The dismissal came during the first two weeks of the most awful period in modern Argentine history, when military rule led to the "Disappearances" of more than 30,000 citizens. A week after Coco's firing, the entire film department was sacked. Rapallo is sure that if he hadn't taken his complaint public via the courtroom, he would have been branded a troublemaker and quietly dispensed with. As it is, more than 70 of his students over the years were "disappeared" during the "dirty war."
Coco spoke with ironic relish about his one encounter with Nazism, Argentina-style. "Peron let them all in after the war. We don't think of him as a Nazi, but during World War II, the Nazis would station functionaries in their controlled territories, puppets who would do whatever Hitler wanted. Argentina wasn't occupied, but if it had been, Peron would have been the man. Anyway, back in 1968 I was in a little town with a strong German population, and it was their Octoberfest. I was dying for a beer so I went into a pub. I noticed that they had different sizes of mugs, from large, to very large to something they called `the Tank.' I asked the bartender, `What's the biggest mug you have for beer?' He answered, `The Fuhrer, of course.'" Coco didn't stay for a second round.
Faster than I thought possible, my whirlwind week in Buenos Aires came to an end. I'd been stuffed with steak, besotted with dulce de leche, swept up by tango, and thrilled by making so many affectionate, articulate and theatre-passionate friends. Jorge, my host, emailed me yesterday to say the actor dispute still hasn't been resolved, and they've now put a table in the Obelisk square and invited people to sign a petition in support of the artists. Just another element of magical, kinetic chaos that makes Buenos Aires so unique, and so splendid.
-- By David Lefkowitz