The irrepressible Colombian director Jorge Ali Triana scoots off his stool during a break in rehearsals at GALA Hispanic Theatre on 14th Street NW to re-create the scene of when he once vexed Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and thus learned a little lesson about art.
It was Bogota, Colombia, the early 1990s. Triana was unveiling his production of "La Candida Erendira," which he had adapted from Garcia Marquez's novella "The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother" - the same work that Triana is directing this month at GALA.
Triana by then had established himself as a significant Latin American director, working voraciously in theater, film and television. His award-winning film from a Garcia Marquez script, "Tiempo de Morir" ("Time to Die"), had been admired by the writer. And he was embarking on what would turn into a two-decade odyssey of adapting monuments of Latin American literature for the stage. The most admired writers, including two Nobel laureates - Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa - entrusted their work to him. "Erendira," with co-adaptor Carlos Jose Reyes, was one of his first attempts.
"Hey," growled Garcia Marquez. "How come Erendira doesn't say the dialogue about the diamonds?" He was referring to the scene in the play during which diamonds are revealed growing inside oranges being transported by smugglers.
"Because it's not in the novel," Triana replied.
"Of course it's in the novel!"
"No, it's not!"
"I'm going to get the book."
Garcia Marquez thumbed to the page in question and discovered that, in fact, the dialogue he had thought was there was not. Something about Triana's stage version had tricked and triggered the writer's imagination.
"Well," said Garcia Marquez, "now it has to be there." On the spot, he dictated lines for Triana to add to the play.
Alas, Triana confesses, chuckling as he retakes his stool, he can't remember now what lines the master dictated, nor whether they are in the script of the current production. That's not the point.
The lesson, Triana says, lay not in the specific words that flashed in the Nobel laureate's imagination that day in the Bogota theater. The episode taught him to always be ready to recognize and embrace the perishable magic of the moment.
"Fortunately, I don't have a very good memory," he says. "Because it would be very boring to copy yourself. The interesting thing in theater, in the exercise of making art, is the adventure and the surprise and the encounter with the unknown."
Triana is bringing that adventurous spirit to one of the showcase productions marking GALA's 35th anniversary. The play, in Spanish with English surtitles, runs through Feb. 27.
"What I like from him, as a director, is that he's still trying things, discovering things, investigating, exploring," says Hugo Medrano, the Argentine-born director and actor who started GALA in 1976 with Rebecca Read, a dancer from New York City. (The couple married soon after founding the theater.)
The play revolves around beautiful Erendira, who, when scarcely a teenager, is forced into prostitution by her grandmother in order to repay the debt of having accidentally burned down her grandmother's house. Erendira finds passing happiness and a chance at escape with her angelic lover, Ulises (played by Ignacio Meneses), whose father grows those oranges.
The drama is set in la Guajira, a surreal golden desert landscape near the Colombian frontier with Venezuela, where today's smugglers are more likely to be hauling coca leaves than diamond-seeded oranges.
Squarely built and improbably energetic at 68 years old, Triana likes to join his actors onstage during rehearsals, slipping into the roles to demonstrate his idea of a character. He's the first to throw himself to the boards of the painted-desert set to incarnate a pratfall called for in the script.
"When he comes onstage, he becomes like a little kid," says Paola Baldion, who plays Erendira. "When you see him outside the theater, he has this very intense look, so maybe you would think he's kind of angry. But he's not the angry director. He's the opposite."
"He is Marcus Welby transliterated to the world of 2011 Latino director - the patient, indulgent, wise, paternal figure you would hope for," says Gil Pimentel, a vice president at National Geographic Television, who plays the father of Ulises.
The actors and managers at GALA report no game-changing thunderclaps of improvisation as evidence of Triana's lesson in spontaneity from Garcia Marquez. But in countless smaller ways, they say, his openness to inspired experimentation has lent this production of "Erendira" notes and nuances that it did not possess before and probably won't again.
This would come as no surprise back home in Bogota, where Triana founded the Teatro Popular de Bogota in 1968 and has grown into something of a cultural celebrity. Last July, he was artistic director for the bicentennial bonanza in Bogota's Plaza de Bolivar - that's almost like Quincy Jones being tapped to co-produce the millennium festivities on the Mall in 1999.
When Baldion was an aspiring teenage actress growing up in Colombia, she says, "one of my first dreams was, I wish I could act in a play with Jorge Ali."
When Triana was about 10, his father, a painter, took him to la Guajira to sketch landscapes. It was a bewitching, savage setting. The windswept coastal desert, inhabited by an ancient indigenous tribe, hardly needed a magical realist like Garcia Marquez to render it supernatural. The boy never returned, but he never lost his enchantment, and many years later, far away in Washington, he would revisit la Guajira through "Erendira."
In 1954, a couple years after the trip to la Guajira, television arrived in Colombia. At first there were only 300 sets in the country. (Triana would learn these facts much later, when he made a documentary about Colombian television.) A neighborhood boy's family had one of the first sets. Triana visited and saw his friend on the little screen, acting in a kids' television show. Spellbound, Triana joined this local troupe, appearing himself on those 300 sets and also onstage. His first role was the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood."
Fifty-seven years later, he enthusiastically recites his first lines, with appropriate lupine ferocity.
"I pursued theater my whole life," he says, chatting for about 90 minutes in Spanish before an evening technical rehearsal, occupying a stool in the theater's intermission snack area. "I never did anything else."
His life span almost exactly coincides with the spasms of political, economic and drug violence that still grip sections of Colombia and which can be traced to a political assassination in Bogota in 1948.
"I'm from a generation that has not known one day of peace," he says.
Themes of national strife appear in his work, buried at varying depths of subtext.
"Art can't offer solutions, but it can ask a lot of questions," he says. "One of my motivations to do this work is my anguish for my society."
His 1996 film "Edipo Alcalde" ("Oedipus Mayor") recasts the Sophocles tragedy with a Colombian mayor trying to promote peace among the guerrillas and the paramilitaries.
That project was the occasion for another lesson from Garcia Marquez, who drafted the building blocks of the script. After the script had been fleshed out and polished by other writers, Garcia Marquez took a last look and invented a new character: a magnificent horse, possessed of an unsettling intelligence, galloping through several scenes.
"All at once, with this horse, the script acquired another dimension," Triana says. "It became strange, it became magical."
He's a continental chauvinist when it comes to narrative fiction. He thinks the Latin American stuff is about the best in the world.
Not so much when it comes to theater. He'd rather direct, say, "Death of a Salesman" - which he presented in Bogota not long ago - than a lot of the plays that have come out of his part of the world.
So when he's on the hunt for new material for the stage, which is often, he'll dive into a good book. He aims high: Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, Sergio Ramirez and lesser-known rising stars.
"It's almost like talking about why do you fall in love with this woman and not that one," he says about how he selects works to adapt. "What strikes the heart, touches the conscience, moves the sentiments and awakens the imagination and desire. It's a lot like love."
The novels he falls in love with provoke playful experimentalism in him and satisfy a latent political preoccupation.
He brought his adaptation of Garcia Marquez's "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater in 2001 and set the murder drama in a bullfighting ring. In New York, he staged Vargas Llosa's "The Feast of the Goat," about the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, in 2003; and a musical version of Vargas Llosa's "Pantaleon and the Visitors," a sendup of military bureaucracy, in 2009.
Vargas Llosa - who, according to Triana, initially had been reluctant to grant permission to the adaptor - pronounced himself "very pleased" with the results.
"He succeeded in translating the essence of those stories into a theatrical language," with a staging that was "agile, original and intelligent," Vargas Llosa said in an e-mail from Lima, Peru. "Besides being a magnificent adapter, Jorge Ali Triana is a very good director of actors, with an alert sense of dramaturgy."
What attracted Triana to "Erendira," besides the hallucinatory setting, was the theme of exploitation, which Triana posits is present in many human relationships.
"Maybe 15 years ago I understood Erendira more than the grandmother," he says. "Now I understand the grandmother more than Erendira."
The challenge of bringing a novel to the stage, he says, is to not make the mistake of trying to "illustrate" the work, but rather to "translate" it into the language of theater.
As the rehearsals for "Erendira" proceeded, Triana felt a familiar ache and insecurity - part of his creative process. Was the translation from page to stage succeeding? Did he need to invent a horse to make the production more strange, more magical?
"There is a moment of encounter between the imagination and reality," he says. That's the moment when the director's vision becomes tethered to an actual production.
"Sometimes the reality surprises," he says. "It's better than the imagination."
With another rehearsal set to begin, he considers what exactly the adaptor, the director, must do each time out to make that happen.
"I don't have the formula," he says after a pause. "I have the aspiration."
La Candida Erendira runs through Feb. 27, Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays 3 p.m. Tickets: www.galatheatre.org, 202-234-7174.