If nothing else, the four Spanish-language plays in this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival all made an aggressive impression.
The sales pitch for this quartet — a mini-festival within an annual showcase of international dance, theater and music events — was that they would give New Yorkers a chance to encounter theater from countries that rarely (if ever) mount legit productions in the U.S.
The promise to deliver something unique may have prompted Olga Garay, curator for this arm of the fest, to select productions driven by audacious images and conceits. If you’re going to position yourself as a coming-out party for multiple nations, you want to make sure you get noticed.
Three of the shows commanded attention via their use of the grotesque. Admittedly, the approach is a turnoff when taken to the boils-and-pus extremes used here. An unrelenting parade of twisted bodies and souls may strike some as a revelatory look at society, but the attack just left this critic numb. That said, the best work at least did grotesque well.
Written in 1919, Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan’s “Divinas Palabras” (Divine Words) assaults notions of honor, masculinity and faith by presenting a town in which everyone is warped by greed and hypocrisy. The plot is almost laughably over-the-top: After his mother dies, the relatives of a sickly dwarf (Emilio Gavira) fight over who gets to make a fortune by dragging him through town to beg for money. Along the way, he gets abused to death and then has his face eaten by pigs, while his aunt, Mari-Gaila (Elisabet Gelabert), is left naked in the streets as punishment for being an adulteress.
Spain’s Centro Dramatico Nacional found immediacy in this dark fable by emphasizing its fantastic flourishes. The first act closes with Mari-Gaila being attacked by human-dog hybrids who may work for Satan. The actors playing the hounds, shirtless and with faces coated in suggestively bestial makeup, howled and snarled like beasts, their bodies lurching between a two-legged run and a four-legged crawl. To escape, Gelabert straddled an enormous tree that hung horizontally in the air, almost filling the stage as it carried her away from danger.
Like so many in the show, this moment was dazzling and unsettling. It announced Valle-Inclan as a master craftsman of theatrical space who deserves a higher profile in the States.
A different spatial elegance made “Gemelos” (Twins), presented by Compana Teatro Cinema of Chile, sumptuous to watch. As it told the story of two young brothers (Diego Fontecilla and Juan Carlos Zagal) forced to hide from the Nazis in the cottage of their hateful grandmother (Laura Pizarro), the production created terrible images on a miniature scale.
The central playing space was a small, puppet-style theater, and inside it, the masked actors captivatingly recalled marionettes. Their artfully precise movements and diction made them appear like sentient wooden toys.
The set design also made witty use of size and proportion. The boys might be seen walking past a tree, and with the shift of a single backdrop, the tree would seem 30 feet away. Such bright imagination fought the oppressive story, in which the boys endure frequent onstage abuse as they try to survive the war and Grandma. “Gemelos” was as draining as it was beautiful.
“De Monstruos y Prodigios” (Monsters and Prodigies), from Mexico’s Theatro de Ciertos Habitantes, was merely exhausting. A history of castrati — the neutered male sopranos who were classical music fixtures for centuries — the production also tried to chronicle the intellectual and political trends that swirled around these mutilated singers.
The result was a chaotic mix of surreal images, opera and slapstick comedy. When it was time for the French Revolution, an audience plant even started a food fight. As bread was flying, a two-headed, four-legged music teacher (Raul Ramon and Gaston Yanes) ran in circles while a centaur (Miguel Angel Lopez) stamped and neighed. Did this mean anything? Who knows? Ultimately, this confused show was too busy following impulses to clarify its thinking.
Amid these freak shows, “Un Hombre Que Se Ahoga” (A Man Who Drowns), from Argentina’s Proyecto Chejov, offered repose. This was a pleasant surprise, since director Daniel Veronese last came to Gotham with his ludicrously brutal play “Women Dreamt Horses,” performed in November at P.S. 122. This time, Veronese presented 12 actors in street clothes, sensitively sketching the web of love and resentment sewn between family members.
And he did it by adapting Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” Though he kept their original names, Veronese reversed the characters’ genders. This time, it was three brothers — still called Irina, Masha and Olga, but referred to as “he” — yearning to flee their village life for the supposed splendor of Moscow.
Veronese focused on pulling supple, naturalistic perfs from his cast, leaving the audience to note the implications of having powerful soldiers played by women and passive spouses by men. By disturbing usual gender roles, the swap highlighted how fixed and unfair those roles can become.
It was the softest statement made in this quartet of plays — and one of the most powerful.