By Ron Cohen
What is the
nature of the human heart? Does it have memory, emotion, conscience? Is it an
extension of the soul, or the soul itself? Or is it only the engine of our
physical being, an organ pumping blood to keep us alive?
These are the
questions Nilo Cruz plays with in Exquisita Agonía
and it makes for a complex drama that’s both provocative and poetic. The final
fadeout leaves these questions hanging in the air, along with some plot points.
Nevertheless, this is a significant new work by the Cuban-American author of the
2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, which demonstrated the
impact of great literature (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) when it is read to
a group of Cuban immigrants while they toil away in a Florida cigar factory
early in the 20th Century.
Agonía (Exquisite Agony) is being given a world premiere
production in Spanish, with English subtitles, by Repertorio Español, the esteemed 50-year-old
company specializing in Spanish-language theater. The story centers on a heart
transplant and the effect it has on both the recipient and the family of the
donor. The donor is a world-famous composer-conductor by the name of Michael
Lorenzo, celebrated as much for his charm as his talent and often referred to
simply as Lorenzo. (The play carries a second title: Lorenzo, Lorenzo.)
dies in an automobile crash, his heart becomes a life-saving gift to a young
man named Amér (Gilberto Gabriel Díaz
Flores), who has come to Miami for the operation from an unspecified country.
It is the
yearning of Lorenzo’s deeply grieving widow Millie (an expressive Luz Nicolás),
a famed opera star, to meet with Amér that sets the drama in motion. The
story climaxes at a dinner party in Millie’s home where the presence of Amér
and his older caretaker brother Imanol (Pedro De León)
sets off a crescendo of emotions among Millie and her two children, her
daughter Romy (Soraya Padrao) and son Tommy (Gonzalo Trigueros). Also present
is the wise and kindly Doctor Castillo (Germán
Jaramillo), who performed the transplant.
the fore is the habitual unfaithfulness of Lorenzo, and the damage it did to
Millie and the children, especially Tommy who as a young boy was made to
accompany Lorenzo on his tours, an attempt by Millie to quell her husband’s
affairs. Also rising to the surface, if only momentarily, are the libidinous
feelings engulfing Millie toward the man who now possesses her husband’s heart.
It’s a situation that could set her against her daughter, who has also begun to
feel something for the gentle-mannered Amér.
there is the impact of all this, both physically and emotionally, on Amér,
in whose body Lorenzo’s heart now beats, a stranger to his being and whose
influence he believes he is feeling. Certainly, the production’s most telling
moment – coming not much before the play’s rather abrupt conclusion – is when
Tommy uses his cell phone to call Amér, who is not far from him in the same
room, and asks Amér to put his own cell phone as near to his chest as possible.
Tommy then proceeds to talk to his father, telling him things never told to him
when he was alive.
All of this
is played out in rather straight-forward fashion under the brisk, no-frills
directing style of José Zayas. The set design by Raúl
Abrego is striking but not especially atmospheric, featuring two back
rectangular panels made up of squares of colored light, the colors changing to
denote different locations. And until the explosive moments toward the close of
the second act, the production has the aura of a mild-mannered family dramedy.
It brings out the comedy and a smattering of pathos but eschews the
mysteriousness of the magic realism that gives much of Cruz’s writing its seductive
performers are commendable in their verisimilitude, but Cruz’s lyrical writing and
feverish plotting also seem to cry out for a good dose of the flamboyance that
a Pedro Almodóvar might bring to the work, enriching
it to its maximum potential.
And how good
is that writing? For non-Spanish-speaking audience members, the English on the
neat little individual screens posting the translations in front of them (Cruz
wrote both the English and Spanish versions) flies by too fast to actually
savor. But here are some samples:
talking to the new heart in his body: “What is a heart? A port? A bay? A park?
A refuge? No, it’s the place where the roads meet…like a train station through
which fear travels, desire; it’s the place that startles me at night…from where
the chill comes from, the panic that strikes me every day.”
And here is
the doctor’s poetic take on the subject: “The heart not only beats to the
forward rhythm of time. The heart also beats toward the past, in silence, resonating
with all that was, with all those who were there before us, before the world;
when it began to be heard in the imagination of God, to the sound of the first
steps of men and women, and the rumor of leaves and the wind…”
you want to check out your own heartbeat.
138 East 27th
Playing on a scattered repertory schedule until August 3