Notorious but boisterous panorama of Puerto Rico
By Celia Wren
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Two clowns scuffle, falling to the floor in a snarl of kicks and slaps. One of the brawlers is a misfit tramp in a bowler hat and oversize jacket. The other, sporting a bright orange wig and an oddball outfit that includes mismatched socks, might have strolled over from a circus.
It’s the Spanish-American War -- as filtered through the lens of “Puerto Rico . . . ¡fua!,” the comic musical at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Carlos Ferrari’s creation -- a tongue-in-cheek overview of Puerto Rican history with an infectious score -- has proved wildly popular on the island, where it premiered in the 1970s. Under the direction of Luis Caballero (collaborating with Hugo Medrano), the GALA production gallivants along with a high-spirited air. The tussling match between Spain (Antonio Vargas, in the wig) and the United States (Joel Perez, in the bowler hat) is a case in point.
“Puerto Rico . . . ¡fua!” strings together sketches and musical numbers representing episodes from the pre-conquistador era through modern times. The conquistadors (Perez and Jeffrey Hernandez) turn out to be mincing poltroons who throw tantrums when the natives don’t cotton to the doctrine of the Trinity. Nineteenth-century Spain’s tergiversation on the issue of island autonomy unfurls as a beauty pageant in which a trophy is repeatedly snatched away from a confused beauty queen, representing Puerto Rico (Isabel H. Arraiza). And the U.S. appropriation of the island in 1898 ushers in wacky American types -- a Marilyn Monroe-like figure (Rita Ortiz) in a billowing white gown, for instance -- who proceed to do the Charleston. (The show’s choreography is by Jose Manuel Ozuna-Baez, who also acts, and Vargas.)
Ortiz is funny as a droning tour guide who points out Isle of Enchantment attractions during a modern crime wave. Vargas and Perez ham it up as the clowns. The most biting performances come from Ricardo Puente, who is hilarious as a petulant conquistador-era monk and, later, as a wedding officiant who puts his fingers in his ears as onlookers frantically explain why Puerto Rico and the United States should not get hitched.
Scenic designer Luciana Stecconi’s spare Puerto Rican-flag-colored set is flexible enough to embrace all of this dark, antic humor. The salsa band Sin Miedo rollicks through the music, which samples bomba, danza, bolero and other genres. A knowing buffoonery may be the acting mode for “Puerto Rico . . . ¡fua!,” but the show’s adept instrumentalists play it straight.
BACKSTAGE: GALA Hispanic Theatre makes lemonade out of lemons
By Jessica Goldstein
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Hugo Medrano, the producing artistic director of GALA Hispanic Theatre, was set to direct the musical “Puerto Rico . . . ¡fua!” He’d been working on the show for six months when, with weeks to go before opening night, Medrano had to be hospitalized for a serious illness.
Medrano is on the mend but had to hand the reins of the show to somebody else: “Poor Luis had to inherit the whole thing.”
Luis Caballero, who directed a production of “Puerto Rico . . . ¡fua!” in New York City 11 years ago, signed on to direct GALA’s production with four weeks left in rehearsals. Caballero saw the show in his native Puerto Rico when he was 14 years old. “We all know this classic in Puerto Rico,” he said.
Rebecca Medrano, executive director of GALA, said getting Caballero “was a real blessing, because he’s done the show and is thoroughly and authentically Puerto Rican.”
Hugo Medrano and Caballero communicated throughout the rehearsal process. “Hugo is a maestro,” Caballero said. “So, you always go to the maestro to talk to them. We talk and we laugh; he gives me notes, and I give him notes. It’s a collaboration . . . [that] I’m very comfortable with. I don’t like to be a dictator.”
In a lemons-to-lemonade turn of events, not only did the Medranos have “this perfect opportunity to bring in exciting new talent,” Rebecca Medrano said, but through Caballero’s involvement in “Puerto Rico . . . ¡fua!,” GALA will be home to the D.C. premiere of Caballero’s new play, “DC-7: The Roberto Clemente Story.” The musical, based on the life of Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente, is touring in Puerto Rico. Caballero will direct a production at GALA next season.