Before the start of "Venecia," Teatro de la Luna Artistic Director Mario Marcel informs the audience that the company's season-closing production is an example of "sainete," a theatrical style characterized by a simple script and farcical elements. In other words, Marcel explains, it's "theater for the people" -- a polite way of saying that it's preferable for ticket holders to check their sense of sophistication at the door.
Marcel isn't kidding: In keeping with the sitcom plot of "Venecia," Teatro's staging of Jorge Accame's 1998 play is broad enough to make "Married . . . With Children" seem refined by comparison.
The action takes place at a brothel in San Salvador, where three young prostitutes loll about half-dressed and giggle as Gringa (Nucky Walder), their blind, elderly madam, randomly wanders around. When Gringa begins talking about a lost love and her desire to reunite with him in Venice before she dies, her girls decide to take her there. Until, that is, they discover how much plane tickets cost -- at which point the idea becomes, hey, she's blind, so we can just fake it!
This zany development, while requiring a gigantic suspension of disbelief, is actually a bit of a welcome turn from "Venecia's" lifeless opening. A quickly forgotten subplot in which two of the workers, Rita (Claudia Torres) and Graciela (Anabel Marcano), dream of becoming dancers is a thin device used to introduce Chato (Peter Pereyra), a dim-but-loyal customer who brings over a sound system for them to use. This then leads to nothing but numerous "equipment" jokes and a loud dance scene in which Rita, Graciela and even Gringa get down for a while, a forced bit of frivolity that stops the little momentum the play had.
While bawdiness in itself is hardly a recipe for disaster -- Teatro, in fact, deliciously proved otherwise in "Three Tropical Nights and a Hellish Life," part of its recent Hispanic theater festival -- "Venecia's" lowbrow humor is uninspired. Most of the gags focus on the characters' naughty bits, including Rita's obsession with her breasts, which Torres grabs and shakes throughout the play, and Chato's constant attempts to find a sex partner, which Pereyra likewise indicates by frequently gesturing toward his groin.
Even when the actors are at their madcap best -- Pereyra in particular has a likable, Ashton Kutcheresque goofiness to him, and Marcano's expressions comically flash from confused to annoyed to eager at each minor conflict -- much of the script's humor may be lost on English speakers.
The punch of Accame's jokes is diminished not only when the interpreters' timing is off, which is an almost unavoidable side effect of simultaneous translation, but also by the anemic formality of the readers, whose delivery is better suited for lofty drama than the high jinks of hookers.
Accame's characters are also, to be frank, as dumb as stumps, though not even consistently so. (We're expected to accept, for example, that present-day women who have no idea where Venice is -- and think that countries are listed alphabetically on maps -- are savvy enough to include food service on Gringa's bogus flight.) Oddly, though, despite irritatingly one-dimensional characters and an eye-rolling story, "Venecia" ends on a touching note that nearly makes up for all the buffoonery that came before it. Turns out that there's a rather heartfelt message in Accame's madness; it's just too bad he took such a low road to deliver it.
Venecia, by Jorge Accame. Directed by Mario Marcel. Set, Mario Marcel and Mariano Lucioni; lighting, Mike Daniels; sound, Daniel Gallo. Approximately 90 minutes. Through June 12 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 202-882-6227.