Passport to Argentina

P.S. 122 brings Buenos Aires to U.S.

For those whose only theatrical image of Argentina involves Eva Peron on a balcony, the Bait Festival (Buenos Aires in Translation) promises a remarkable education.

Co-produced by U.S. arts org Salon Volcan and Gotham performance hub P.S. 122, the fest’s first installment ended Nov. 19, having presented English-language premieres by four Argentine scribes paired with four American directors.

Fostering an ongoing cultural exchange, Bait next is planning to give four American plays their Spanish-language preems in Buenos Aires.

The project reflects recent statements by P.S. 122 a.d. Vallejo Gantner that his theater is committed to bringing more international work to Gotham.

Despite its potential, however, the fest has so far provided a limited vision of Argentina’s work.

The four plays produced all can be summarized in exactly the same way: They use extreme methods to explore the violence humans inflict on one another. All of them feature actors shrieking as loudly as they can. Two involve forced sex acts, and two have characters vomit onstage, one of which features the murder of four people.

It’s difficult to accept this unrelenting brutality as anything but a skewed representation of the Buenos Aires theater scene. More likely, the programming belies an aesthetic prejudice on the part of the producers, who seem to have selected work for its supposed edginess.

That’s disappointing, since fest publicity touts Buenos Aires as the focal point of Latin American playwriting. One wonders what else its artists have to say.

Their work must be more interesting than the laughably belligerent “Women Dreamt Horses.” Written by Daniel Veronese and directed by Jay Scheib, the play brings three brothers and their wives to an abandoned apartment to discuss a failing family business. That’s just a tidy excuse to let characters spend 90 minutes hitting each other before someone pulls a gun. Intricacies of plot get swallowed in the chaos.

These people are one jester hat away from a Punch & Judy routine, but Scheib supports their ludicrous fury. His blocking relies on actors getting in each other’s faces, and perfs are all stone-faced. With nary a change in tone, both writing and production become exhausting punishment.

The tone of “Panic” doesn’t waver, either, though not because of the writing. In a compelling premise that hovers between films like “Ghost” and “The Sixth Sense,” Rafael Spregelburd’s play observes a dead man who doesn’t realize he has died. He wanders blithely through his home and the apartment where his mistress shot him. Meanwhile, between trips to psychics and shrinks, the living try to find his safe deposit box key.

Directed by Brooke O’Harra, the production finds humor in Spregelburd’s approach. His characters may often loathe each other, but they are fools.

The opening scenes succeed, as a distraught realtor tries to sell the murder-scene apartment before her deadline, and her client, a loopy modern dancer, refuses to comply.

However, too many cast members become sloppy as they opt for broad comedy. Without discipline, the troupe becomes shrill, missing the subtler possibilities in the text.

Subtlety slides into obscurity in “Ex-Antwone,” Federico Leon’s attempt to stage a world between dreaming and waking. Yet his “dream logic” proves impossible to follow. A young man named Antwone cavorts in bed with a woman who claims to have recovered from Down syndrome. On television screens, we see Antwone’s elderly mother discussing a girlhood camping trip as though it just happened. There’s also a moment when our hero shoves his fingers in his girlfriend’s mouth while she exposes her breasts. The production aims for a sense of immediacy, and director Juan Souki lets actors literally sit on the audience as they argue. It’s all very aggressive, but arty gestures don’t guarantee meaning.

Both context and insight are provided by “A Kingdom, a Country, or a Wasteland, in the Snow,” Bait’s most accomplished production.

Set in an apocalyptic wasteland where humans wear primitive fur pelts but swallow prescription pills by the handful, Lola Arias’ play depicts a family whose closeness has obliterated its humanity. Their barely repressed incestuous and murderous desires are unleashed when an orphan boy enters their home, becoming an object of warped attraction for them all.

Jean Graham-Jones, who translated all four plays, does his most evocative work here, as the language elevates the family’s baseness. Through poetry, their actions can be understood both as cruelty and metaphor for how isolated societies injure themselves.

Director Yana Ross enhances the effect of the text with a symbolic physical language. When the orphan and one of the family’s daughters have sex, for instance, they are suspended from the edge of the metal scaffolding set, facing each other. Rather than simulate thrusting, they run in place in the air. Their spinning legs and pumping arms speak more about the frenzy of their world than a simple sex act could.

It would be gratifying to experience more Argentine theater that has a similar gift for blending emotion, intellect and imagination.

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