Fernando Freire, Wilson Melgares
One need only observe the wide-eyed wonder reflected in the faces of the youthful audience gathered on a hot summer afternoon in a Newark playground to appreciate the colorful world of imagination created by the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and Pregones Theater. Following a tour of New York’s five boroughs, the joint company visited several New Jersey sites with “They’ve Got Death Bound Up” (Tiene La Muerte Atada), a fanciful musical allegory written by Uruguayan playwright Hugo Bardallo.
The medieval carnival, spoken and sung entirely in Spanish, relates the adventures of a poor peasant rewarded by God for his honesty with three wishes. Among the requests made by Gonzalez (Pietro Gonzalez) are wishes to always win when he gambles and to be forewarned when death arrives. Despite his good deeds of helping the sick and needy and feeding the hungry, the townspeople eventually resent his good intentions and envy his power. However, Gonzalez manages to foil the town witch, who has summoned death (Alicia Kaplan) to take him away.
Tying up the ghostly specter, Gonzalez immobilizes death, causing havoc. When no one dies, gravediggers and florists go bankrupt. Even the Devil (Juan Villarreal) intervenes as a mediator but without much success.
Bardallo’s allegory is an enormously witty observation on life and death. The piece, laced with an insinuating Latin musical beat, has been staged with a steady rhythmic tempo.
Credit should go to the energetic traveling players who throw themselves so vigorously into their broad comic characterizations. The staging is simplistic and the acting pointedly broad but acceptably clownish.
A few crates on a small platform backed by powder blue screens serve the action comfortably. The players in varied blue, yellow and red capes and a few strands of beads perform in commedia dell’arte makeup.
Braced with a simple printed translation, it’s easy for the viewer to follow the action and even easier to get swept up by the rousing music and dancing.
The players double in roles with startling zest. Kaplan lends an alluring contrast to alternate roles of Angel and Death, while Gonzalez provides expressive contrasts as the hapless hero.
There is an infectious edge to the foot-tapping music, but the piece would clearly benefit from more persuasive percussive support, especially from the rather tentative snare drum and cymbals.