On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five thirty in the morning…
So begins one of the most powerful works of literature ever written. Chronicle of a Death Foretold was published just before the author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.
Those same words—flatly announcing the death to come—herald the beginning of a stunning adaptation, now having its DC Premiere at GALA Hispanic Theatre.
This Chronicle of a Death Foretold unfolds in much the same way that a newspaper story would. It is retold at least twice, each time in greater detail, examining all the petty actions and inactions that lead to a murder that is as inevitable as it is preventable.
The story is deceptively simple. Against her wishes, a shy girl is abruptly married to a wealthy stranger. In her innocence, she refuses to fake virginity—despite the advice of friends who tell her to spill mercurochrome on the sheets—and is hurled back onto her mother’s doorstep.
Forced to admit the source of her dishonor, Angela names Santiago Nasar, the town’s most eligible bachelor. Yet he and she have apparently never met. Why she chooses Santiago is anyone’s guess. But from that moment, both are doomed.
Santiago himself is the ultimate hero, adored by his mother and most of the townsfolk. He is a playboy who chooses to dress in white—even though it’s a Monday—and is played with charming swagger by Nicolás Carrá, a New York-based actor who is originally from Argentina.
Santiago’s sense of entitlement, of believing himself somehow immune to anything as plebian as murder, is akin to suicide. He refuses to hide.
Angela’s twin brothers, Pedro and Pablo Vicario, are the appointed murders. Forced to avenge their sisters’ disgrace on someone against whom they hold no grudge, they get drunk, collect knives from the butcher, lose the knives to the mayor, and generally stumble around town, always a few steps behind the victim they would prefer not to catch.
The boozy brothers are played with comic splendor by José González, a native of Cuba and Edwin R. Bernal, from Guatemala.
Angela herself is played with touching credibility by Inés Domínguez, a Colombian actress, dancer and singer, recently seen at The Kennedy Center in selections from West Side Story.
If Santiago is the doomed hero, then the bridegroom, Bayardo, is the villain. His role is played with ruthless bravado, edged with pure nastiness, by Erick Sotomayor, a leading Mexican actor who trained at The Studio Theatre here in DC and currently lives in Los Angeles.
The village priest—Padre Amador—is the one who tries hardest to prevent the murder. Played with humility and sorrow by Carlos Castillo, an award-winning international performer and a native of Venezuela, he was last seen at GALA in Señorita y Madame: The Secret War of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.
Pura Vicario, the mother whose greed sets the story on its course, first by forcing the marriage of Angela and then by demanding that her brothers avenge her, is played with demonic strength by Marta Carton. A star of television and film in her native Spain, she was last seen here in Yerma. Poncio Vicario, Pura’s blind husband, is played by Oscar Ceville.
Like many of the others in this outstanding cast, both Carton and Ceville play multiple roles. In fact, there are 36 characters in the tightly knit drama. Ten of the 15 actors perform double or triple duty, forming a Greek chorus that is both narrator and collective voice of the witnesses.
This is ensemble playing at its best, with every voice and movement perfectly synchronized. Overseeing it all—and helping to bring the pages of the book to life—is director José Zayas, a veteran of GALA productions. Zavas, who was born in Puerto Rico and educated at Harvard, has directed award-winning productions in New York, Denver, Chile, and Costa Rica.
The single set consists of a village square surrounded by four animal sheds, which serve as bedrooms, kitchens and cafes. A butcher shop—in which a bloody carcass hangs—dominates the stage. At the center of the square is a small corral, in which the combatants will ultimately fight.
Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden and Mary Keegan are the designers who transform the stage—through scenic design and light respectively—into a magical replica of a small town in Colombia in the 1950s.
Lynda Bruce-Lewis is the Stage Manager who orchestrates the cast, allowing characters and action to flow seamlessly from one enclave to another.
Choreography plays a major role in this production. Katie Bücher is responsible for the dance and Jonathan Rubin for the brilliantly simulated fights. Their work is most notable in the wedding night scene of sexual surrender and the murder that is its consequence.
The handkerchief dance at the wedding is especially resonant, reminiscent of the Jewish wedding dance of the Hasidim and underscoring the role of ritual in this tale.
Although a far cry from the opera of the same name, the production is artful in its use of sound, which includes the mournful lament that speaks for Angela’s loss. William D’Eugenio is both the composer and the designer.
One of the most powerful scenes is that of the town’s eruption into frenzy, as normally decent people shout each other into orgies of hatred and fear.
The costumes by Alicia Tessari – a leading set and prop designer in Argentina—do an extraordinary job of spelling out details of the story. The spattered blood of Santiago’s white suit echoes the absence of blood on the wedding sheets. The stains on Angela’s wedding dress, after the beatings, speak volumes about the brutality meted out by the supposed upholders of morality.
Also telling—and hilarious—are the outrageous outfits sported by the bridegroom’s family, who are decked out in hats and other fancy attire, designating them as city folk from far-away Curacao.
One of the most stunning features of this Chronicle is its use of repetition. Each retelling begins in the same way, much like a prayer. Yet each reveals a widening drama, as more and more of the witnesses are implicated in the crime.
Magic realism—the trademark of Marquez and other Latin American writers—in this case is not literal magic. There are no miracles or supernatural events. Instead, the magic is created by the inexorable pull of fate, the ubiquity of denial and the fluid nature of time.
Marquez, who died in 2014, was a native of Colombia. As a young man, he dropped out of law school and became a journalist, serving as a foreign correspondent in Paris, Rome, Barcelona and New York before becoming a novelist and political activist.
Although One Hundred Years of Solitude is certainly his most well-known work, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is, in my mind, a greater literary achievement. Events that in the earlier book (published in 1967) take a century to unfold are here condensed into 24 hours, then recreated, time and again, to create other worlds within worlds.
The play, adapted by the well-known Colombian theatre and film director Jorge Alí Triana—who actually collaborated with Marquez on several projects for television—has been performed more than 500 times around the world since its premiere at Repertorio Espanol in 1999.
This retelling of the Marquez tale is an exercise in terror, completely absorbing. It is also a wonderful way to see the work of a great writer beautifully mounted on stage.
Like most of GALA’s plays, Chronicle is performed in Spanish with an excellent English translation—by Gregory Rabassa, first published in the US in 1981—running concurrently on screens above the stage. The English dialog is verbatim from the US edition.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold plays through May 8, 2016 at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 234-7174, or purchase them online. Here are directions.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold is performed in Spanish with English on-screen translations.