US Premiere of Mexican Classic Now Playing at GALA Hispanic Theatre
Some might think of it as a Mexican version of Rashomon—Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film in which each of the characters describes a different version of a crime they have all seen—while others might see it an eloquent variation on what our political leaders call “alternate facts.”
Either way, the play—I Too Speak of the Rose (Yo También Hablo de la Rosa), now having its US premiere at GALA Hispanic Theatre—is a powerful reflection on poverty, innocence, and the games people play to disguise unpleasant truths.
Set in the early 1960s in a working class suburb outside Mexico City, the story, on the surface, is simple:
Two teenagers meet at a bustop. The boy, Polo, is playing hookey because his mother is still scraping up the money to buy him new shoes. The girl, Toῇa, is on her way to school, but she loses her bus money and decides to join him.
The two amble along the railway tracks until they reach a garbage dump full of cast-offs. One of these is a concrete basin which they proceed to roll onto the tracks.
It’s all innocent fun until a freight train, laden with costly goods, roars into view and crashes into the concrete, sending it flying off the rails. The children are so innocent of the damage they’ve caused that they simply hang out at the track and are easily caught by the police.
What happens next is a media frenzy, comparable to the Twitter attacks that fly about today, each one blasting its own brand of fabricated news.
The story is played out over and over again as the children’s motivation—and punishment—are debated. A news vendor shouts out the latest headlines, pundits debate the possible causes—repressed sexuality? the bondage of capitalism? evil incarnate? —while the Medium, observing events from a lofty height, questions whether any of it was deliberate at all.
Playing the role of the Medium and filling it with majesty and foreboding is the great Mexican actress Julieta Egurrola, making her first appearance in the US. A star of Mexico’s national theatre, the Compañía Nacional de Teatro, she has appeared in more than 50 theatrical productions and has been named Best Actress for roles on stage, television, and film. She was last seen in Mexico in Coriolanus.
Egurrola’s narrative foreshadows all that is to come, and that drama is wonderfully amplified by Alberto Segarra, whose lighting design casts long shadows against the concrete walls abutting the tracks. The shadows dramatize the sense that the Medium is indeed a link to the spiritual world.
Heightening the tension is the clickety-clack of the train, rounding the bend again and again as it heads for the inevitable crash. Neil McFadden is the sound director who creates the thunder of the impending (but unseen) disaster.
If the Medium is a symbol of the future, the news vendor is her opposite, promoting a noisy present. Together they form an alternating Greek chorus, delivering commentary on the events unveiled.
While the Medium speaks of an eternal truth, the vendor—a purveyor of ‘Fake News’ long before the phrase was coined—tells us to choose any version of the facts that’s convenient or appealing.
Roberto Colmenares is the news hawk who basks in sensationalism. (If this play were set in today’s world, Colmenares would be a broadcaster on Fox News.) Each day, he hypes the latest warped theory on why the crash happened and what made the kids do what they did.
The kids—who are both the perpetrators and the victims of the crime—are at the heart of the drama. Sharon Desiree is Toῇa, the schoolgirl who’s lost her bus fare and decides to take the day off.
Although 25 in real life, Desiree—who is originally from Ecuador—is thoroughly believable in the role of a fresh-faced 14-year-old. In fact, she is as flirtatious, sexy, exuberant and innocent as only an adolescent can be. She is also the hope of her hardworking single mother, who struggles to pay for school.
Polo, Toῇa’s comrade in delinquency, is portrayed by Steven Soto, who lends the role all the bravado of a 14-year-old boy who can’t go to school that day because his shoes are in tatters.
Unlike the rest of the cast, Soto was born in the US. English is his first language. For him, the biggest challenge in playing the role was learning Spanish—and adapting it to the Mexican dialect. A second challenge was playing a 14-year-old when he is now 33. Soto lives in the DC area, in Silver Spring, MD.
Polo’s mother is played with heart-wrenching anguish by Lorena Sabogal, a native of Peru who also lives in DC. Married to an abusive and uncaring man, Polo’s mother—like Toῇa’s—works desperately hard to keep her children in school. It is one of the play’s many ironies that it’s the lack of decent shoes—which the school requires—that sets the plot in motion.
Edwin R. Bernal, who was last seen at GALA as one of the killers in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, is Maximino, the kind-hearted motorcycle mechanic who tries to help the kids as much as he can. He warns them of the consequences of pranks—even minor ones, such as stealing coins from a pay phone—and agrees to give his photo to Toῇa, warning her not to commit any more mischief.
Although the play is meant to be a serious statement on justice and society, there are many comic scenes. One of the funniest is played by Marta Cartón as the school principal who will not tolerate delinquents. Outraged by the children’s “crime,” she expels them both.
Carton, who studied ballet in Madrid, is also the choreographer who sets the pontificating characters in motion in a surreal dance of death.
The pundits—the arrogant professors and lecturer who deliver parodies of their disciplines—are hilarious. Oscar Ceville is the Freudian psychoanalyst who finds sexual innuendo in every step leading up to the crime. (His talk is illustrated by the sweet-faced Toῇa, who performs an erotic dance with a soda can.)
Manolo Santalla, on the other hand, reads economic slavery and injustice into the children’s behaviour. And Peter Pereyra,what may be a reference to Shakespeare, compares the train wreck to a rose.
The excellent ensemble is rounded out by Chema Pineda-Fernández and Melissa Strova Valencia—both originally from Latin American and now active in DC theatre—and Jessyka Rodríguez, who is from Puerto Rico. All three play multiple roles.
Yo También Hablo de la Rosa is directed by Hugo Medrano, the Helen Hayes Award-winning actor, director, and producer whose work is well-known in cities around the world, including Buenos Aires, Madrid and New York.
Medrano, who settled in Washington and founded GALA Hispanic Theatre 41 years ago with his wife, Rebecca Read Medrano, chose the play because of its relevance to society today.
First produced in 1965, Yo También is considered a masterpiece of Mexican theatre. In addition to being a playwright, its author, Emilio Carballido, was an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter who collaborated with Luis Buñuel and produced more than 50 films before his death in 2008.
While the play verges on didacticism—meaning it’s a bit preachy—the backstage team, headed by Tsatami Duciela as Stage Manager and Lena Salins as Production Manager, manages to keep things moving. Reuben Rosenthal is the wizard who once again orchestrates all the technical components.
The set, designed by Daniel Pinha, is quite ingenious, juxtaposing the real and the imagined. In the foreground, a railway track juts out from behind a concrete barrier. Ahead, along the road, is a huge mound of garbage. In the distance, a cardboard cut-out of the Mexico City skyline is a reminder of the unattainable city, as opposed to the reality of the garbage dump and the tracks.
Jessica Cancino’s props are funny and gory. The garbage heap contains arms and legs and parts of a torso —which might, or might not, be parts of a dead body—as well as motorcyle parts and lots of junk. Among the latter is the concrete basin that causes the crash. (The kids think it would make a good flower pot if it were broken in half, which is presumably why they roll it onto the track.)
Costumes, designed by Alicia Tessari, help the actors to inhabit the roles of teenagers. Toῇa’s pinafore and socks and Polo’s knickers (without socks) establish both of them as kids skipping school. The jackets and ties of the professors convey the uniform of their exalted profession.
Props and costumes aside, the question remains. What will become of the children? Will they rot away in prison? Or will they be rescued by enlightened leaders, and allowed to grow up and become motorcycle mechanics like their hero and friend, Maximino?
That, according to our all-seeing Medium, is another story….
Yo También – in the hands of its masterful cast of performers and designers – is relatively timeless, and worth seeing for the sheer spectacle of fine acting and direction that it offers.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
I Too Speak of the Rose (Yo También Hablo de la Rosa) plays through February 26, 2017, at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 234-7174, or purchase them online. Here are directions.
Note: I Too Speak of the Rose is performed in Spanish with English surtitles.