‘Puerto Rico…ifua!’ at GALA Hispanic Theatre by ZSun-nee Matema

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If ever there was a shoulder shaking, foot tapping moment in theater, Puerto Rico…ifua! now playing at GALA Hispanic Theatre, gives you that and more. The history of Puerto Rico is filled with long engagements by the Spanish and Americans who intruded into the natural order of things and abused their guest privileges. One way or the other they managed to destroy both the Indigenous Tainos and their land.

José Manuel Ozuna-Báez and Ricardo Puente. Photo by Nick Eckert.

The history lesson reveals life on the Island as it evolved from Adam and Eve through more cannibalistic tendencies – to the many attempts by the Spanish to acculturate the Indigenous people to a higher standard of civilization. There are hilarious, bouncy beats of story that pretty much bridge the Taino and their succeeding generations of mestizos to the Spanish America war, and WWI. The play breezes through a plethora of constitutional edicts given and taken away and sails up to a sexy rap-pop present day look at New York expatriates.

The upbeat way in which history is shared brings laughter and pathos in a way you will not soon forget. Missionaries, in partnership with the Spanish conquistadors, ensure the chaos that follows interaction with foreigners and we see through the eyes of a fantastic ensemble cast the ups and downs of life on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico.

Before we can celebrate the brilliant performances of the eight member cast, we must first sing the praises of Director Luis Caballero who brings life to the terrific script by Carlos Ferrari. This inspired romp through Puerto Rico’s history had many unique features. Caballero paces the show beautifully from one fluid moment of rich storytelling after another – by eliciting the assistance of actors who magically add information, entertainment, and history.

Joel Pérez, Antonio Vargas and Jeffrey Hernández. Photo by Nick Eckert.

Another magical element that caught my eye was the comedic edge given to the action when narrated by two cast members dressed as clowns. The storyline was embellished as they gave voice to the behind the scenes history of the Spanish-American war. When The Maine, an American war ship sent to protect American interests in Cuba, experienced a mysterious explosion, the Spanish were blamed. The clowns, in their cynical reverie, attempt to set the story straight.

The company of eight actors, Ricardo Puente, Joel Perez, Antonio Vargas, Rita Ortiz, Jeffrey Hernandez, Anamer Castrello, Jose Manuel Ozuna-Baez and Isabel Arraiza take control of a rolling and rocking Latino history with music, dance and song. The evolving changes which turn Puerto Rico from its Indian roots to its African influences through its multitude of European oppressors leaves one to speculate that – as Director Caballero says, “A classic play like this one shows not only where we come from, but also where we are headed.”

I loved Rita Ortiz and company in “Beguin the beguin.” This song sung with a sultry, mesmerizing rhythm tells the story of yet another change of foreign partners and makes Ortiz’s first appearance at GALA a reason to have her back time after time. “Prostitutas,” another colorful song and dance number, described the indoctrination of native women into the underworld of prostitution.  Ortiz, Arraiza, Vargas and Castrello brought a spunky cha-cha to this musical number highlighted by the farcical persona of Vargas’s character in drag. It was a blast!

From the sweet, jaw dropping, head drooping face of ‘Miss Puerto Rico’ (Isabel H. Arraiza) when she marries the American ‘salvation’ of annexation, the audience realizes that there needs to be a rude awakening to bring true independence and freedom to an Island beset by historical complications.

Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi’s set has rounded open spaces and colorful backdrops which were removed when needed. The colors were swirls of bright oranges, yellows and reds. It worked because it set the scene for a vibrant Island story set in a lush paradise of ethnic and cultural diversity. It was complimented by Lighting Designer Andrew Griffin whose subdued and splashes of lighting made the stage come alive in Fiesta estilo!

Puerto Rico…ifua! has a serious subject amusingly presented with a high-energy cast, great musical arrangements by Musical Director Didier Prossaird, and Alicia Tessari Neiman’s clever costumes.

GALA should be applauded for bringing high quality, diverse productions to the Washington, DC area. Puerto Rico…ifua! Is a hand clapping, sing-along wonderful experience. It’s a runaway hit!  Bring the children. They will love it!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.

The cast of 'Puerto Rico ifua!' Photo by Nick Eckert.

Puerto Rico…ifua plays through July 1, 2012 at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC.  For tickets, purchase them online.

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ZSun-nee Matema
A Baltimore transplant by way of Washington, DC and Silver Spring, Zunny has loved theater since her mom put her in the Capitol Ballet Guild and the Directors in turn kept her busy with roles in local DC Theater productions. Learning to tell a story to an audience be it dance, plays or cable productions is all the same to Zunny – exhilarating! Arena Stage gave her a life altering theater experience while today she blends her love of theater with teaching history, her other love. “Incredible!” is how Zunny characterizes her 13 years with performing companies, AFRIASIA & The Painted Gourd: Red & Black Voices. Zunny considers theater the greatest teacher in the world. No one was more shocked than she when the creation of intercultural shows culminated in the New York production of “Remember the Sweetgrass,” produced by the NBC Playhouse. With three plays written and produced, cable directing and writing awards under her belt, at last, Zunny, gives in to what she’s known all along, nothing satisfies like Theater! She is proud to be a part of the DCMetroTheaterArts family!