“Marriage is hell on earth if you’re not happy,” says a character early in Jose Rivera’s “Boleros for the Disenchanted,” receiving its world preem at Yale Rep. But heaven is also within reach for those true lovers who endure, believe and forgive, according to the scribe’s epic study of wedded life that is simply — and not-so-simply — marvelous.
Rivera embraces marriage’s — and life’s — imperfections and contradictions. At times the fulsome narrative, themes, theatrical styles and sharply-shifting moods run the risk of toppling upon themselves. But the playwright plants his warring factions — men and women, old and young, believers and non, Old World and New — into a colorful, conflicting garden that, when one steps back, becomes an Eden of profound beauty.
In 1953 rural Puerto Rico, Flora (Sonia Tatoyan) bursts through the kitchen door upset with the news from her mother (Adriana Sevan) that fiance Manuelo (Felix Solis) was seen kissing another girl.
The virginal Flora confronts him, but the slickster explains it’s just in the nature of men. Flora ends the engagement and retreats to the village of her modern-thinking cousin, Petra (Lucia Brawley), where she meets respectful soldier Eusebio (Joe Minoso), who woos and wins her, then her parents. But when the couple announce they will emigrate to the U.S., which the parents view as corrupt, spiritually impoverished and a shameful drain on Puerto Rico’s population, Flora’s Papi (Gary Perez) curses their union.
Second act takes place 38 years later in 1992 in a dismal home in Daleville, Ala., where Flora (now played by Sevan) tends to her invalid husband (Perez again).
Bereft of their scattered family and stuck in the middle of nowhere, they bicker and love with the rhythms and rituals of a couple who know each other’s flaws and graces. Old Flora counsels a lusty engaged pair (Brawley and Minoso) while a health worker (Tatoyan) helps her tend to her husband. When Eusebio envisions his approaching death, he demands last rites from a perceptive priest (Solis), which leads to a disastrous confession.
Smartly and sensitively helmed by Henry Godinez, the Yale Rep cast is exceptional, believably inhabiting a world where humor, pain, poetry and grace exist simultaneously.
As Flora young and old, Tatoyan and Sevan are both suitably self-possessed, sharp-tongued, funny and fraught. Sevan especially gives her dual roles a well-lived feel.
Perez brings fury, frustration and poignancy as both Flora’s father and her husband in old age. Solis is a delight as the smooth-talking cad and startling as the soft-spoken priest. As the young Eusebio, Minoso has the quiet confidence to seduce a saint; as the modern newlywed, he is a lovable lug. Brawley gives her roles the right amount of sass and confusion, respectively.
Linda Buchaman’s set defines the show’s contrasting worlds and creates a resplendent final image, while Yuri Cataldo’s costumes and Joe Appelt’s lighting also add to the complex spice. Gustavo Leone creates the boleros that beguile lovers and also serve as balm when their dreams go unfulfilled.
Though the play deals with a specific culture, its universal themes of love, marriage and faith will resonate with all auds, making it appear destined for a rich future life. A separate production is already set this fall for Beantown’s Huntington.