In the first scene of "The Salamander's Ritual," the Mexican play now running at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, a young woman is reviewing three boxes of slides, while she squabbles with her younger brother. The pictures are of her lovers, or rather a certain part of their anatomy. And this is just the beginning.
The sister lusts after her father, who is impotent with the mother, who seduces her son, who is a homosexual. Even the aged family maid, a virgin, has strange erotic relations with spirits she conjures out of the air. Between bouts of sexual waltzing, individual family members petition a urinal that rests under a glass bell on their mantel; they have discovered it has magical powers to grant their wishes because it was obtained by the father, a government official, for the use of Pope John Paul II on his visit to Mexico.
The mother, presumably, is causing these strange forces to surface because she is nearing menopause, and according to the legend of the salamander, she becomes so sexually insatiable that she is attracted, metaphorically, to fire, which ultimately destroys her.
But for all its provocativeness, Hugo Argu elles' play has little to say beyond the rather trite theme that middle-class bureaucrats like the father are cruel hypocrites who will do anything to appease convention. The play was intended for the sexually repressed bourgeoisie of Mexico, and perhaps would have more impact in that milieu; to an American audience, the family seems to be engaged merely in an angry game of mutual abuse.
"The Salamander's Ritual" is being performed in both English and Spanish; I saw the English version. Three cast members play in both: Claudia Dammert as the fiery, frustrated mother, Richard Gaetjens as the troubled son, and Leonor Chaves as the daughter, who seems to be the angriest character of all. While these actors sometimes attain more than one emotional level--particularly Dammert in an affecting monologue of despair--Jack Wilbern as the father is wooden and unsure of himself and Helen Olney as the maid is from the same school.
"The Salamander's Ritual," by Hugo Argu elles, directed by Eduardo Ruiz Savin o'n, translated by Nena Terrell, designed by Hugo Medrano. With Leonor Chaves, Richard Gaetjens, Jack Wilbern, Claudia Dammert, and Helen Olney. At the GALA Hispanic Theater through May 2.