From Uruguay, with laughter

The first half of this month, a witty woman ranged over the stage of the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington County, doing devastating impressions of men. Now, through Saturday, a wisecracking man is in the house, dressed as a woman and riffing about the sexes and life in general.

Graciela Rodriguez and Petru Valenski both hail from Montevideo, Uruguay, where they are popular comedians, TV stars and stage actors. Their stage runs in the Washington area — Valenski arrived the day Rodriguez flew back home — have been a kind of experiment in the universality of humor:

Will jokes that kill on the north bank of the Rio de la Plata bomb on the southwestern shore of the Potomac?

The directors of Teatro de la Luna — a bilingual theater that presents shows in the Gunston — didn’t think so, or they wouldn’t have devised this March double-billing dubbed “From Uruguay, With Laughter.”

But Uruguay?

Even in the media markets of southern South America, Uruguay gets no respect, Rodriguez says. On television in Uruguay, it feels like all Argentina, all the time.

“We know all the Argentine actors — the good, the horrible and the abominable — but they don’t know us,” she mock-ranted at lunchtime in Luna’s house/office on Georgia Avenue NW.

That’s because, as hip as the Montevideo arts scene is, the big countries don’t deign to pick up little Uruguay’s cultural fare, said Luna’s co-founder, Mario Marcel, who can speak objectively as a native Argentine.

But now here they are, getting solid reviews from American critics and belly laughs from international audiences. (The theater provides simultaneous English translation via headphones.)

“A sense of humor depends on the person, not on the country,” Rodriguez said. “If you have a group of people sitting around a table in Montevideo, they won’t laugh at the same things. Before the country, there is the person.”

“Humor is not just laughs,” Valenski said. “It lifts your spirit, renews your desire to feel better, and it doesn’t matter what country you’re from.”

Neither artist is a joke-teller; both rely on situational humor and physical comedy, which probably helps their export potential.

Rodriguez, 53, was looking for new material for a one-woman show last year when she saw a title on display in a bookstore. It was a satirical advice manual, written by a man, instructing women on how to avoid falling in love with losers.

Within months, it was adapted into a script and she was presenting it onstage in Montevideo, where it was an immediate hit, “Como Evitar Enamorarse de un Boludo,” or in Luna’s translation, “How to Avoid Falling in Love With the Wrong Man.”

Onstage, Rodriguez is like a Uruguayan Anna Deavere Smith, slightly altering her voice or mannerisms to sketch the many varieties of loser men and the women who fall for them.

In one scene, the woman is angling to create a romantic evening that she hopes will culminate in a little lovemaking. The man surreptitiously turns on the bedroom TV — for the romantic lighting, he explains — which just happens to be showing his soccer team. The man’s increasingly passionate exclamations about the game double as hot entreaties to his lover. The scene ends, perhaps not unexpectedly, with the man crying, “Goal! Goal! Goal!”

Misunderstanding and reconciliation between the sexes is universal, of course, and Rodriguez’s real subject is the human condition: We are all losers, after a fashion, and that’s part of what’s lovable about us, she says.

“I say, if ‘wrong men’ exist, it’s because ‘wrong women’ exist, too,” she says.

Valenski’s attempt at cross-border humor is a slightly greater challenge, because his play, “Atrevidos,” or “The 3 Rascals,” takes the form of a traditional Latin American “cafe concert,” a genre popularized in Argentina in the 1960s. But it’s not totally foreign. Americans may find shades of vaudeville, cabaret and musical revues in the blend of songs, sketches and stand-up.

Valenski, 52, a stocky man with close-cropped hair, applies makeup and a wig and squeezes into a dress for his performance. The cross-dressing, he says, gives him a certain license to comment on both men and women: He can speak as a man because nobody is fooled by his costume; yet the stockings and lipstick confer authority as a woman at the same time.

He is joined onstage by two younger Uruguayan musician-actors, Danilo Mazzo and Fabian Silva.

The artists in a cafe-concert are the devil-may-care representatives of the people. “We say upfront what people are thinking down low,” Valenski said.

He locates the universality of the cafe-concert in this quality of knowing irreverence possessed by the entertainer, which goes back to Shakespeare’s fools and beyond.

Some of his bits on Latin American politics may escape some in the audience. But anyone might recognize his portrayal of a bossy, brassy lady who knows everybody’s business in her barrio. He revisits the movie “Titanic” and splices in a song from “Cabaret,” while inviting audience members onstage to play parts.

Valenski cuts the acid of his satire by laughing at himself and stirring in dollops of tenderness and nostalgia. He sings the world-weary wisdom of Argentine chanteuse Nacha Guevara:

Better times, worse times I have lived — still I’m here.

Champagne sometimes,

other times beer or anisette — still I’m here. . . .

I’ve lost my illusions

— still I’m here.

Comedy is hard work, and both artists say it can’t be over-programmed. Both trust the inspiration of the moment, and they improvise.

“In humor, if you see the technique, it stops being humor,” Rodriguez said. “It’s easier to make people cry.”

A3vidos (Atrevidos/
The 3 Rascals)

Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday matinee, 3 p.m., Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington.

Tickets: 703-548-3092.

David Montgomery writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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