Theater at the crossroads
Teatro de las Américas takes the road less traveled
By James Scolari 04/16/2009
The crossroads figures deeply in dramatic lore — situated between worlds, a place for reckoning and orientation, where deals are struck in the deepest chambers of the heart. Producer Margaret Cortese knows something about such rarefied real estate; with her Teatro de las Américas — which opens El Pasatiempo Nacional / The National Pastime this week in Oxnard — she often finds herself beyond the edge of the map, left to reckon an artistic and budgetary terrain that few producers dare.
Theater in Ventura County is a difficult endeavor under the best of circumstances, whether under the Rubicon’s celebrated proscenium, in the county’s smaller but well- established and stable venues, even the shoebox theaters that, come hell or high water seem to manage to regularly raise a curtain on their respective dramas — economy and apathy be damned — praise the Bard, amen.
Not for the faint of heart is yet another variety, a sort of roadshow theater, for lack of a better term — steadfast companies that lack permanent homes, who mount their productions as acts of brute will and determination, against odds long enough to well nigh incite thrombosis in Vegas books and in venues that are often less sure even than those microscopic odds.
Yet it’s by such will that a company’s heart might best be measured. And it’s by that measure that Cortese’s company — in it’s 19th year — truly shines, having staged some 40 productions through those years and against those long odds, with precious few titles among those of which even devoted theater patrons have likely heard. Sure, they’ve raised the curtain on Tennessee Williams with Un Tranvía Llamado Deseo, on Oscar Wilde with La Importancia de Llamarse Ernesto, even the Bard himself with the ever-popular Domando La Fiereza, but it’s at the heart of el Teatro’s mandate to feature the work of Latin American playwrights, both celebrated and obscure. Among the company’s last productions have been works from Mexico, Spain, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Perú, Venezuela and more.
El Pasatiempo Nacional comes from the pen of Cuban exile Raúl de Cárdenas, a tragic tale of dreams, love and baseball in the oppressive milieu of Castro’s shopworn revolución. As is the case with many of Cortese’s productions, the playwright himself will be in the audience for a number of the performances, on hand to field questions and discuss the piece’s challenging themes of passion, repression and homoerotism. The intimate piece is brought to passionate life by the small ensemble of Armando Rey, Alejandro Sandoval, Jesús Ochoa and Margarita Sánchez, under the guidance of director Roberto Sánchez.
A seasoned actor himself, Sánchez brings to his sophomore directorial effort a keen appreciation for that passion that not only binds the playwright’s characters but that must also serve as the guiding star for the ensemble, who dare to embody such for the run of the show, and who must do so under a changing proscenium as the production travels. “Sure, the traveling is a challenge,” the director notes, “but it can also be a blessing in disguise — it forces us to pull together, to depend on each other more; and that results in a more dynamic performance, and more exciting theatre for our audience.”
While that audience is primarily Spanish-speaking, Cortese notes that it’s not exclusively so. “We’re looking to serve a three-faceted audience,” she explains. “One audience is Latino by heritage, bilingual but fully acculturated; there’s the Spanish monolingual community, who depend on Spanish-language arts; and there’s the English-speaking audience that speaks little or no Spanish.” Cortese makes no bones about the fact that, despite a presumed language barrier, the production is as much for the latter audience as any other — an English translation is provided, much in the manner of a foreign-language film, via projected super-titles, offering context to the narrative even as the players’ passion ably carries the theme, blasting through the language barrier as if it did not exist.
With the drama already raising curtains in Oxnard, Los Angeles and Ventura, Sánchez hopes to travel even farther, if necessary, to bring the worthy piece to audiences and to continue funding the budget that allows for the work to continue.
While the company has thrived, in part thanks to a significant grant from the Destino Fund through the Ventura County Community Foundation, their ambition outstrips that or any single source of funding as they not only look to continue an ambitious slate, but also to find a permanent home for storage, office and rehearsal space, confident that sooner or later their work will win them a home in a small industrial space or storefront.
It’s a confidence born of passion and forged on that road less traveled, the one that leads out to the crossroads and safely back home again — a trip by which we all are enriched.
The National Pastime, a tragedy set in Havana, Cuba, involves baseball, homosexuality and big dreams. April 19 and 24 at 7:30 p.m.. Café on A, 438 S. A St., Oxnard. 485-5445, www.teatrodelasamericas.org.