Review: ‘Miss Cuarenta’ Starring Paula Arcila at GALA Hispanic Theatre

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GALA Hispanic Theatre—home of the National Center for Latino Performing Arts—kicked off its 41st season this weekend with the DC premiere of Miss Cuarenta.

Paula Arcila. Photo courtesy of GALA Hispanic Theatre.
Paula Arcila. Photo courtesy of GALA Hispanic Theatre.

The dazzling solo performance—written and played with Latin bravura by Paula Arcila, a Colombian sexpot now living and working in Miami—was full of so much physical inuendo that it was impossible to miss the meaning even if one didn’t speak Spanish.

Fortunately, my companion—a retired Latin American displomat who loves the language—was able to serve as my interpreter, whispering, inbetween bouts of laughter, about Arcila’s theories about such things as homosexuality (caused by women shooing off men’s demands) and some of the odd preferences of British royalty.

The gist of her monologue, however, was that when it comes to sex, the more satisfying, the better—for both men and women.

In Miss CuarentaMiss Forty-year-old in Spanish—Arcila celebrates her own 40th birthday by recalling the men in her life as well as her long-ago innocence, embodied in the frilly white dress she wore for her quinceanera, or coming-of-age party, held when a girl is 15.

Of course, the dress no longer fits at the top—a fact about which she is justifiably proud—and she revels in her own sexuality, strutting about the stage in a skin-tight strapless purple pantsuit with what look like seven-inch platform heels.

Despite the heels, Arcila glides easily across the stage, dancing, as she talks, to some of the greatest Latin American music of the last 25 years.

It’s all very seductive, yet funny, thanks to Arcila’s often deadpan delivery. She combines quinessentially Latin shrugs with sultry pouts, using hand and body language to emphasize some of her most comic points.

The entire show, in fact, is a celebration of unbridled sexuality, which some Americans might find shocking. Not so the mostly young and Latino audience, which gave it a standing ovation at the end.

Much of the credit for this show goes to Director Leandro Fernandez, who—with the help of a gifted tech staff, led by Reuben Rosenthal, Lena Sallins, and Laura Rodriguez—manages to transform an enormous empty stage into a theatre of the mind.

Paula Arcila in Miss Cuarenta. Photo courtesy of GALA Hispanic Theatre.
Paula Arcila in ‘Miss Cuarenta.’ Photo courtesy of GALA Hispanic Theatre.

The set, designed by Nelly Diaz-Rodriguez, consists of a chair, a table and the lacy dress, saved from the long-ago quinceanera and hung on a dressmaker’s model.

The dress is as much a presence as Arcila herself. It is brought to life by Pipe Jaramillo in a brilliant sequence of  black and white photo projections, showing the actress’s own quinceanera 25 years earlier. There are also photos of her as a baby and as a girl growing up in Colombia.

Jenny Cisneros is responsible for the dramatic lighting and April Sturdivant for the sound, both of which provide a kind of grandeur that belies the simplicity of the show.

Miss Cuarenta—which has been staged in Florida and New Jersey as well as Colombia and the Dominican Republic—marks a new chapter in the career of Paula Arcila, a performer so physical that it is hard to believe that most of her working life has been spent behind a microphone. She is co-host of Univision’s morning program, El Desayuno Musical, broadcast on Caracol Radio in Miami.

The show served as a summery introduction to GALA’s 2016-17 season, which will mark its official start in September with Cervantes—The Last Quixote, a world premiere by Spanish playwright Jordi Casanovas. Other productions include a Flamenco festival and the US Spanish-language premiere of Broadway’s Tony Award-winning musical, In the Heights.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

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Miss Cuarenta played for two performances on July 15 and 16, 2016 at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future events at GALA, go to their website.

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