2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival Review: ‘Bodas de Sangre’/’I Only Came to Use the Phone’: ‘The Duende Cycle’ at Asian Arts Initiative

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The Duende Cycle, two plays performed in repertory created by Eliana Fabiyi and Tanaquil Márquez, is nothing if not exceptionally ambitious. Comprised of a bilingual adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre and I Only Came to Use The Phone, an original devised work based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez, the creators offer just shy of 200 minutes of theater in a festival where runtimes typically fall short of an hour. The sheer scope of the project is remarkable, and the creators manage to pull off a great deal of success in both pieces. 

Kelly Filios, Joshua Tewell, and Aneesa Neibauer. Photo by Rosie Simmons.
Kelly Filios, Joshua Tewell, and Aneesa Neibauer. Photo by Rosie Simmons.

Bodas de Sangre tells the story of a husband-to-be, whose father was killed by men from the Felix family. Even though his fiancé was previously involved with a man named Leonardo Felix of the same family, El Novio’s mother and La Novia’s father come together to prepare the wedding. Meanwhile, Leonardo, after learning of the marriage, seeks out La Novia and confesses his still-burning love for her. The marriage happens successfully, but Leonardo and La Novia run to the swamp together. The chase is on in the swamp, as El Novio is determined to hunt down Leonardo and take back his wife. Leonardo and El Novio kill each other, and the news gets to town when La Novia arrives covered in blood. La Madre del Novio must then decide whether or not killing La Novia will restore honor to their family. 

Bodas de Sangre is performed in both English and Spanish, with each character speaking a different proportion of each. In general, though, the older characters speak almost entirely in Spanish and the younger characters speak English with each other and Spanish with their elders. The end result is an almost even split of each language. My Spanish is relatively rusty, and the audience was informed that the subtitles were malfunctioning and would not appear. I am actually glad that there were technical difficulties in this case, because I could more successfully focus on the action on the stage. While the subtleties of Lorca’s text was lost on me, I found the story easy to follow. And, even though I wasn’t comprehending 100% of the words, hearing Lorca in its original language was truly special – like hearing Shakespeare for the first time.

The space is arranged in an alley configuration, and the roving staging created good sightlines for everyone. With the exception of a giant pile of dirt at one end of the space, the set is spare and simple with various spaces created using light, chairs, tables, and boxes in various configurations. Angela Coleman’s lighting was mostly effective, but placement of certain light fixtures shone a bit too brightly into my eyes – always a danger with alley seating. David Reece Hutchinson’s costumes placed the show in modern day Miami more clearly than any other production element. Ezekiel Jackson’s fight choreography was also a highlight, as pulling off a vicious fight with audience on both sides is about as difficult as it gets.

The ensemble handled Lorca’s text adequately in both languages, but by and large the standout was Yajaira Paredes. She played La Madre with all the ferocity and focus of a titular woman in a Greek tragedy, taking over the stage with all of her scenes. This woman was meant to perform Lorca. Josh Tewell also shone as El Novio, gracefully transitioning from infatuation to rage. At times the production sags, but these strong performances typically launch it back into a good space.

Punctuated by moments of dance and soundscape, Bodas de Sangre’s modern, yet classically-informed production kicked off The Duende Cycle with a bang.

In contrast to the now-classic Lorca text, I Only Came to Use The Phone is an original, all-English-language work from the same creators. It follows a magician’s assistant/wife as she is mistakenly forced into a women’s mental institution, undergoing treatment at the hands of an abusive staff while trying desperately to convince someone to let her call her husband. It’s a pretty depressing story overall, offering essentially no redemption or catharsis in its surreal (and rushed) ending.

A different part of the Asian Arts space is used, creating a very theatrical proscenium arrangement with a large red curtain-esque backdrop. As the play begins, we are told we are welcomed to the cabaret, but I am not convinced that what followed fit that description. Nevertheless, music and dance play a strong role in the show, often originating from the chorus of inmates. The chorus is perhaps the most consistently strong element of the show, functioning partially like its Greek counterpart and partially like another production element, creating environments and moods through different movement vocabulary.

The Chorus with María and The Magician. Photo by Rosie Simmons.
The Chorus with María and The Magician: Eliana Fabiyi, Kelly Filios, Sol Madariaga, Joshua W Tewell, Aneesa Neibauer, and Shelvy Paredes-Parrales. Photo by Rosie Simmons.

Josh Tewell again shines as The Magician – performing a fun set of classic little-kid-oriented magic tricks as well as embodying a believable character throughout the play. Ezekiel Jackson provides an enjoyable over-the-top performance as Gustavo, though his character is ripped from the pages of another play. He’s a total caricature in a world that, while not naturalistic, is far less cartoonish than he is. I appreciated that Jackson dove headfirst into the ridiculousness of what the script gave him, especially during a game show sequence that felt incredibly out of place – the piece is best when treated like standard theater (Greek or otherwise). Kelly Filios does a fine job as María, staying strong for as long as she possibly can until the institution breaks her.

My main objection with this piece is that the ending felt rushed, with actors beginning gestures just as the final blackout hit. Additionally, the final image of María was not given time to land, and I was left confused as to what I was supposed to take away from the last beat. The setup was there, but the punch line did not land.

One of the hardest words to translate, “duende,” is listed in the dictionary as “elf.” However, this pair of plays gives credence to the interpretation that “duende” means “soul,” something these theater makers have plenty of.

Running Time: Bodas de Sangre: One hour and 40 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission. I Only Came to Use The Phone: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Duende Cycle (Bodas de Sangre/I Only Came to Use the Phone) plays through September 21, 2016 at The 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival performing at Asian Arts Initiative – 1219 Vine Street, Third Floor, in Philadelphia PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215)413-1318, or purchase them online.

RATING: FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STARS8.gif