Sensationalism and the avant-garde: A match made in heaven? It was certainly a match made in Brazil in 1943. That year saw the premiere of Nelson Rodrigues’s “The Wedding Dress,” a drama that played fast and loose with space, time and levels of reality while touching on murder, adultery, conspiracy, prostitution and other juicy topics. A piece of formal experimentalism that a tabloid headline writer could love, “The Wedding Dress” has been called the work that ushered Brazilian theater into the modern era.
Local audiences have a chance to experience “The Wedding Dress,” which opened Thursday, as Spooky Action Theater stages an English-language version that is billed as the play’s D.C. premiere. The production, directed by Rebecca Holderness, is the centerpiece of a mini-festival aimed at raising awareness of Rodrigues (1912-80), a towering figure of Brazilian culture who is little known in the United States.
The fact that Rodrigues wrote in Portuguese — not one of the most studied or spoken languages in this country — may have hampered the growth of his reputation here. And then there was his penchant for addressing provocative and sensitive themes, including incest, sexual repression, violent crime, marital dysfunction, race and interracial relationships, and homophobia. The English-language title of one his plays (later turned into a film) is “All Nudity Shall Be Punished.”
“He was too raw for an American audience at the time of his maximum success in Brazil,” says Spooky Action’s artistic director, Richard Henrich.
Not that Rodrigues never scandalized his Brazilian contemporaries.
“He took a real delight in causing controversy,” says Sarah J. Townsend, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, who is a co-editor of the book “Stages of Conflict: A Critical Anthology of Latin American Theater and Performance.” Rodrigues was particularly interested “in airing the dirty secrets of the middle class and lower-middle class in Rio de Janeiro and exposing the underside of the hypocrisy of that social class, which was very concerned about maintaining appearances,” she says.
Rodrigues’s focus on that segment of society was bold for Brazilian drama at the time, says Vivaldo A. Santos, an expert in Brazilian literature who is an associate professor at Georgetown University. “Usually most of the plays [then] focused on the higher class, rather than the common people and middle class,” he says. Add in the experimentalism of a work like “The Wedding Dress” and Rodrigues “did change the way of thinking about Brazilian plays in the 20th century.”
Theater wasn’t Rodrigues’s only calling medium. Raised in a family that ran a newspaper, he worked as a journalist, wrote novels, and was well known as a soccer commentator. He had pronounced political opinions, supporting the military regime that ruled Brazil after a 1964 coup. That partisan bent raised the hackles of some of his countrymen, says Townsend, who calls Rodrigues “probably the most loved and loathed playwright in Brazil” to this day.
The work of this dramatist-provocateur found its way to Spooky Action after Roberta Alves joined the company as its marketing and communications manager in January 2012. A writer who has worked as an arts journalist in Brazil and holds Brazilian and Australian citizenship, Alves found herself thinking about Rodrigues’s “Wedding Dress” when she first toured Spooky Action’s home, in a downstairs space at Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street NW. With its ecclesiastical associations, the intimate venue (set up to seat about 60) seemed, to her, suited to a play that features funeral and wedding sequences.
Moreover, the dreamlike atmospherics of the Rodrigues script aligned nicely with the non-naturalistic aesthetic that marks many Spooky Action productions. Alves recommended to Henrich that he read “The Wedding Dress,” which conjures the world and mind of a woman who has been hit by a streetcar: As callous reporters track if-it-bleeds-it-leads details, the tale’s focus veers between straightforward narrative and the injured woman’s hallucinations and not-so-objective memories.
When he read the script, Spooky Action’s artistic director loved it.
“Naturalism no longer really interests me,” says Henrich, who founded Spooky Action in 2004 and named it after one of the logic-defying tenets of quantum physics. Rather than naturalism, he says, he’s drawn to “that collective unconsciousness that is the ground of theater.”
“The world of dreams, the imagination, the unconscious: Those are all areas that I’m interested in exploring — and so is Nelson Rodrigues,” he says.
He gave the “Wedding Dress” script to Holderness, a Milwaukee-based artist who had directed the horror- and myth-inflected yarn that was “Kafka on the Shore,” Frank Galati’s adaptation of a novel by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, which Spooky Action mounted in 2013.
Like Henrich, Holderness had been unfamiliar with Rodrigues’s work. But when she read “Wedding Dress,” she says, she was “compelled by its combination of psychological, almost expressionist reality, in combination with what is a very present film noir, almost whodunit energy. ”
She supervises a cast of 10, drawing on her background in dance and choreography, as well as theater.
That set of skills — grounded in movement, with an awareness of pictorial composition — is helpful for a play like this, which has to flow from scene to scene in a dreamlike manner, she says.
Once Holderness and Spooky Action had committed to “Wedding Dress,” Alves and Henrich planned the rest of the mini-festival, which is supported by the Brazilian Embassy. The agenda includes staged readings of three other Rodrigues plays in English translations, along with a Brazilian music workshop and cooking class. (An unrelated Rodrigues festival took place in New York in 2005.)
Alves selected the plays for the staged readings with an eye to presenting a fuller picture of Rodrigues’s idiosyncratic vision. “The Asphalt Kiss” (to be directed by Abel Lopez) deals with homophobia and tabloid reporters run amok. The one-woman show “Waltz #6” evokes violence, sexual secrets and, possibly, madness (Brazilian actress Liliana Castro will interpret the role; Alves will direct). The ultra-stylized “Doroteia” (to be directed by Jacob Janssen) depicts a family that is burdened with suffocating sexual repression and haunted by a mysterious jar, which may be the libido.
“Rodrigues was a newspaperman. And what sold newspapers then, and probably even now, is sensationalism,” Henrich says. “He likes to come up with things that would shock and amaze and even disgust people. It probably was in his blood as a yellow journalist. But he had a larger social consciousness and wasn’t doing it just to get a rise out of people.”
Shock tactics alone might not have sufficed to give Rodrigues’s work the classic status it has attained in Brazil.
“You have Tennessee Williams,” Alves says. “We have Nelson Rodrigues.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Nelson Rodrigues, directed by Rebecca Holderness. Through March 9 at Spooky Action Theater, Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. Visit spookyaction.org or call 202-248-0301.
at Spooky Action Theater, during
the run of “The Wedding Dress.”