Two clowns scuffle, falling to the floor in a snarl of kicks and slaps. One of the brawlers is a misfit tramp in a bowler hat and oversize jacket. The other, sporting a bright orange wig and an oddball outfit that includes mismatched socks, might have strolled over from a circus.
It’s the Spanish-American War — as filtered through the lens of “Puerto Rico . . . ¡fua!,” the comic musical at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Carlos Ferrari’s creation — a tongue-in-cheek overview of Puerto Rican history with an infectious score — has proved wildly popular on the island, where it premiered in the 1970s. Under the direction of Luis Caballero (collaborating with Hugo Medrano), the GALA production gallivants along with a high-spirited air. The tussling match between Spain (Antonio Vargas, in the wig) and the United States (Joel Perez, in the bowler hat) is a case in point.
“Puerto Rico . . . ¡fua!” strings together sketches and musical numbers representing episodes from the pre-conquistador era through modern times. The conquistadors (Perez and Jeffrey Hernandez) turn out to be mincing poltroons who throw tantrums when the natives don’t cotton to the doctrine of the Trinity. Nineteenth-century Spain’s tergiversation on the issue of island autonomy unfurls as a beauty pageant in which a trophy is repeatedly snatched away from a confused beauty queen, representing Puerto Rico (Isabel H. Arraiza). And the U.S. appropriation of the island in 1898 ushers in wacky American types — a Marilyn Monroe-like figure (Rita Ortiz) in a billowing white gown, for instance — who proceed to do the Charleston. (The show’s choreography is by Jose Manuel Ozuna-Baez, who also acts, and Vargas.)
Ortiz is funny as a droning tour guide who points out Isle of Enchantment attractions during a modern crime wave. Vargas and Perez ham it up as the clowns. The most biting performances come from Ricardo Puente, who is hilarious as a petulant conquistador-era monk and, later, as a wedding officiant who puts his fingers in his ears as onlookers frantically explain why Puerto Rico and the United States should not get hitched.
Scenic designer Luciana Stecconi’s spare Puerto Rican-flag-colored set is flexible enough to embrace all of this dark, antic humor. The salsa band Sin Miedo rollicks through the music, which samples bomba, danza, bolero and other genres. A knowing buffoonery may be the acting mode for “Puerto Rico . . . ¡fua!,” but the show’s adept instrumentalists play it straight.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Carlos Ferrari. Directed by Luis Caballero with the collaboration of Hugo Medrano; lighting design, Andrew F. Griffin; costumes and properties, Alicia Tessari Neiman; sound, Brendon Vierra. About two hours. In Spanish with English surtitles. English translation by Angel S. Torres-Cabassa. Through July 1 at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Visit www.galatheatre.org or call 202-234-7174.