For 18 years, Hugo Medrano has been involved in a kind of a war. And it shows. His cheekbones almost poke through his skin; his temples are hollowed. Medrano doesn't live in Beirut or Sarajevo. But for nearly two decades, he's been fighting for the life of GALA Hispanic Theatre, Washington's first foreign language theater.

"I'm a producer, director, actor, and I clean the bathrooms," says Medrano. "I'm not sure which I do best."

Not everyone would agree. Last year Medrano nabbed a Helen Hayes nomination for his performance in "El Protagonista." And in the current production of "El Beso de la Mujer Arana" ("Kiss of the Spider Woman"), he has received raves for his performance as Molina, the gay window dresser.

"Being a woman is awfully difficult," whispers Medrano, "but I am getting into something that excites me very much."

For a father of three who has spent two decades producing theater in Washington, Molina might be one of his easier roles.

Hugo Medrano sits in GALA's offices in Mount Pleasant and stares at a Marlboro. It is an exercise in concentration. Or perhaps distraction.

"My first passion is acting ... although I have experience in directing. I like the nervousness before the show. Even after 100 performances, I still get nervous every night."

The nervousness is contagious. Medrano doesn't smoke the cigarette, he just stares at it. He fingers it, plays with it. It becomes a kind of ancient Chinese water torture for an observer. After half an hour, one wants to break down, weep and beg Medrano to smoke the cigarette. He doesn't.

Medrano is 50 years old. He came to Washington in 1971, at a time when Arena Stage was the preeminent theater in town and the Kennedy Center was about to open its doors. The landscape for small theater was arid, and there were certainly no Hispanic stagings (other than a few religious tableaux at local churches).

"I saw there was a lot of potential here for a Spanish audience," says Medrano. "The Salvadoran and Bolivian refugees hadn't arrived, but there were people from the Inter-American Bank, the OAS {Organization of American States}, the World Bank and the Pan American Health Organization."

In his native Argentina, Medrano was a collegiate star, played Hamlet and was about to embark on a theatrical career in Buenos Aires when he slipped off to Spain. "The military regimes became too. ..." Medrano fingers the cigarette and searches for the word. "Heavy," he says, raising an eyebrow.

He spent what he describes as six glorious European years: receiving a scholarship to study at the prestigious Teatro Estudio Madrid, beginning a successful television career, playing Hamlet again and running one of the country's most respected children's theaters.

Then, alas, he fell in love -- "that thing you do when you're young." When his heartthrob moved to the United States in 1971, he followed. "I left behind contracts I had in Spain for a full year. The stupid thing was not that I came here -- because when you do things for love, I believe in that. I'm regretting that I didn't go back when everything was gone."

Everything was gone within three months. The relationship broke up and Medrano found himself alone in Adams-Morgan. "I remember standing on 16th Street, waiting for a bus to take me to my job as a busboy in Bethesda. That was the only work I could get, because all I knew how to say in English was 'Stick 'em up!' -- like in the cowboy movies. It was snowing. Cold as hell. And I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?' "

Medrano remained in Washington, though he's not sure why. "Pride, I guess. Or maybe because everybody in Spain was mad as hell at me." He looked for a creative outlet, and discovered Teatro Doble, a bilingual theater for children. It was perfect for Medrano: He got to learn English, along with his audience. It was also there that he met his wife, Rebecca Read, an actress and dancer.

"The first time I met Hugo he was spray-painting my costume," says Read. "He did everything: act, direct, design, produce. And yet he couldn't speak English." The play was "The Greedy Goat," a fable that Read describes as "sort of a socialist play for children." Read played the fawn in the story and Medrano was the greedy goat. "I spoke in English, Hugo spoke in Spanish. I was good, he was evil."

But Medrano couldn't have been all evil; three years later he and Read were married in Argentina.

When the couple returned to Washington in 1975, they had a mission: the creation of GALA Hispanic Theatre (the acronym means Grupo de Artistas Latinoamericanas). Its purpose was to bring the dramaturgy of the Southern Hemisphere to its northern neighbor. "Latin playwrights are not known in America," says Medrano. "I suppose it is Americans' ignorance of Latino culture in general."

Medrano and Read bought a town house that year in Adams-Morgan. "Adams-Morgan wasn't what it is now. There weren't the restaurants and night life. But it was wonderfully bohemian. There were several nightclubs with very good jazz. A lot of visual artists on the block. Dance Place was there. And art cooperatives. And GALA too. We had lots of crazy, crazy times."

They converted the first floor of their house into a 60-seat theater, placing seats on both sides of the stage so the audience could "confront themselves," Medrano explains. They produced five plays yearly, each performed first in Spanish, then (with an alternate cast) in English.

"I did the English version of the second GALA play -- 'The Death Rattle of Don Tino,' " recalls Brian Hemmingsen, now artistic director of the Washington Shakespeare Company. "I played a land czar who pretended he was dead so the peasants wouldn't revolt. Then the peasants found out he was alive, so they nailed him into a coffin. A real South American play. ... GALA was great, as was all of Adams-Morgan. It was family."

"We were younger and crazier," says Medrano. "We always had something going. ... We had important writers and painters from Latin America talk about their work. We had a gallery for local Hispanic visual artists. It was a kind of cultural center."

Then, thus spake development. Adams-Morgan became hip, and more than once Medrano was hit. His building was broken into, and once someone picked up a staple gun and smashed him over the head, leaving him staggering into the Spaghetti Garden next door wearing a crown of crimson. The couple had one son, and twin boys were on the way, so they sold the Adams-Morgan house in 1983. ("Cheap -- to get off the street," says Read.)

GALA briefly relocated to All Souls Church at 16th and Harvard streets NW, but found theater difficult to juggle around the church's busy schedule. It then moved into the downtown debacle called the Lansburgh Project at Seventh and E streets NW, the ill-fated, poorly managed arts center sponsored by the District that became better known for rats and garbage than for its commitment to the arts. GALA spent a year in the building. "A fiasco," says Medrano. "There was no money. The administration was not good. It was dark and uninviting. And our Hispanic audience was not accustomed to the downtown area."

Then, serendipity. One day in 1984, while passing the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Mount Pleasant, three blocks from his home, he stopped. "For years I had walked by it. But this time I looked, and it hit me: It had to be a theater." The cavernous auditorium inside the school was converted to a professional stage the next year.

Since then, GALA -- which now has an annual budget of $300,000 -- has produced four shows per year, maintaining its mission of producing only Latin American playwrights.

Medrano describes his aesthetic as a mixture of European influences (Brecht, Artaud, Genet and the Polish "theater of cruelty") and Latin American politics. The combination, he says, results in "subversion, which I believe in, because it makes you creative. In Latin America, we build something and along comes a military regime and knocks it down. So theater learned to break things: the rules, the structure of plays, the conventions. And because of the military, we became deceptive, and developed a wonderful style of writing with a minimum of words, with a suggestive and symbolic text. That is a large part of our body of literature."

He says the difference between the Latino and the American actors he has worked with is simple: passion. "Generally, it costs a lot to get emotions out of Americans. They are very disciplined, so much so that they feel they have to give the same performance every night. They will not let themselves make mistakes, give themselves to the situation, to the character. They learn lines and do homework. But where is the feeling?"

Medrano estimates that GALA's audience is 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent English (plays are now produced in Spanish with simultaneous translation). A good part of the Hispanic audience comes from the theater's original sources: international organizations and middle-class Latinos. But the huge influx of Salvadorans, Bolivians and Peruvians over the past 10 years has presented Medrano with a dilemma. "So many Hispanics in Washington now have different levels of education and awareness of theater. Salvadorans, for instance, have a strong orientation toward music, so we have to start working on musicals to attract them. And because of political refugees and health issues, at times we've had to become almost an advocacy theater."

But Medrano sees his future task as relatively simple: to build a small Kennedy Center for Hispanics. He knows this will require political influence, lobbying by Hispanic members of Congress, and corporate and institutional support. But, he insists, "It's going to work. GALA began as a cultural center. We've had to abandon that recently to concentrate on theater. But we will go full-circle for all the Hispanic arts."

When Medrano is asked to talk about Molina, he finally strikes a match -- but blows it out before lighting his cigarette. "Molina is so far away, it takes me out of Hugo Medrano. Like I am not a man anymore. ... It's really what I'm experimenting with." The experiment has been tried before, on film, and won William Hurt an Oscar in 1985. That subject makes Medrano grimace. "Hurt's performance was ... hurting me. And I know {author Manuel} Puig didn't like it, either."

He explains, "Hurt gave a tortured performance. But Molina is not tortured. Not mentally. He's just a window dresser. He doesn't even think he's a homosexual. He's a woman. He's free, even though he's in both a South American prison and the prison of his male's body. And he doesn't want a homosexual lover, he wants a straight man, like the {revolutionary} in his cell... .

"I really think it's a feminist play," Medrano asserts. "These two people leave the realistic place of the prison ... and find different ways of shifting from submission to power, from masculine to feminine. It's really an examination of our very conventional concepts of power and sexuality."

Medrano would like to talk about acting more. But the war's not over. He puts the cigarette down. It's his turn to answer the phones.

T J Edwards is a two-time Helen Hayes Award-winning playwright and freelance journalist.