Boleros for the Disenchanted
By Jose Rivera
Directed by Carey Perloff
American Conservatory Theater (ACT)
May 13-31, 2009
Photo: Kevin Berne. www.kevinberne.com
On the face of it, nothing very important seems to be happening in “Boleros for the Disenchanted,” a new work by Jose Rivera (“Marisol,” “The Motorcycle Diaries”). But look beneath the surface and this charming little play is about nothing less than the most momentous things in life – love, loyalty, empowerment and death. Rivera’s loving memoir of his parents’ courtship and marriage is wrapped in beautiful, poetic language that weaves a lovely fabric out of the threads of the ordinary. It also gives us a glimpse of what life was like for Puerto Ricans after WWII both in their native land and in America (not so great in either locale).
Uncommonly well-acted and directed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff, the American Conservatory Theater production is a triumph of simplicity. Ralph Funicello’s scenery gives us a stucco cottage, framed by flowering plants on one side of the stage and a whole village of tiny hanging houses on the other in Act One. The second act setting is more mundane – a sickroom with a mostly-darkened living room next door. It could be a metaphor for the play, which begins with the high hopes of Puerto Rican lovers amid the beauty of their island home and ends near an Alabama army base where those same lovers, now old, will spin out their waning years.
This production is one of the most successful instances of cast doubling this critic ever has seen. A young girl’s father (Robert Beltran) and mother (Rachel Ticotin) become the young-lovers-grown-old in Act Two, while the Act One lovers take lesser roles. The girl – Flora’s – suitors in morph into a young soldier (Dion Mucciacito) and a priest (Drew Cortese) in the second act, while her lively cousin Petra (Michelle Vasquez) becomes the soldier’s girlfriend. Flora herself is played by Lela Loren, who takes the small role of a nurse in Act Two. So well does each actor inhabit their character that you note, but barely notice, their return in different parts. Nevertheless, the play belongs to Ticotin and Beltran as the aging lovers whose relationship plays out very differently than they imagined while they were courting under the Puerto Rican moon.
In the 1950s Puerto Rico was a hard place to live. Jobs were scarce (“The Americans pay us not to work” Flora’s father opines), prices were high and morale was low. The only thing that had come down in cost was a plane ticket to New York. Young people, hoping for better opportunities, were taking advantage of that bargain and leaving the island in droves. Once in the U.S. however, they were more likely to find prejudice and menial jobs than streets paved with gold. Nevertheless Flora (Loren) and Eusebio (Cortese) decide to cast their lot with the expatriates and leave Puerto Rico against her parents’ wishes. We catch up with them some 40 years later, He is bedridden, his legs amputated due to diabetes, and she is his nursemaid but, in spite of life’s disappointments, they still are in love.
Rivera has a light touch and humor is interwoven with the serious aspects of the play. At one point, Eusebio has a dream about an angel who forecasts his death on Christmas Day. He describes his vision of heaven to the devout Flora. It’s like Puerto Rico in the 1890s, he says, “and you get to drink all the beer you want – with Jesus.” Stubbornly planning his funeral on the basis of his dream, he cautions his wife: “Don’t get cheap with the flowers!” He insists on confessing to a priest and inadvertently admits to marital indiscretions that were previously unknown to his wife. All hell breaks loose. And Eusebio doesn’t die after all. His angel of Death was only a dream and he must make his peace with the angel of life that he married so long ago.
Rivera is generous with his memories and the only complaint I can have with his play is that the “Boleros” – the Spanish-language love songs – of the title are so few and far between. This play could have used more music throughout. As it is, we have to make do with the music of the playwright’s words.