Among the great pleasures of theater is its ability to transport us, so thoroughly enmeshing us in the story and world of a play that we feel we’ve been on a vivid journey – without ever leaving our seats.
Carmen Rivera’s “La Gringa,” the longest-running Spanish-language play in Off-Broadway history, is graced with that magical power.
For its annual holiday season full-length production, City Theatre is giving Rivera’s play about a young Nuyorican woman’s exploration of her Puerto Rican roots the Miami debut it deserves.
Running at Manhattan’s Repertorio Español since 1996, the OBIE Award-winning “La Gringa” is both specific and universal in its treatment of timeless subjects, including the schisms within families, the search for identity, economic insecurity and blossoming love.
Staged by executive director Gladys Ramírez with intricate attention to detail and meaning, City’s “La Gringa” begins casting its spell from the moment the audience enters the infinitely malleable Carnival Studio Theater space.
The audience is seated around a circular stage adorned with the Great Seal symbol of the island’s ancient Taino people. Just beyond the circle are rooms in a well-kept family home in rural Las Piedras, places where props and furniture reside when they’re not being used in a scene: the bedroom where the seriously ill Manolo (Carlos Orizondo) lives out his days, and the kitchen and living area where his bossy sister Norma (Talita Real) delivers her orders (Manolo calls her “General Norma”).
Over the stage are monitors aimed at each section of the audience, with items evocative of Puerto Rico (a stop sign with the word Pare, various hats, a bicycle, Puerto Rican license plates, shirts emblazoned with the word “Boricua,” tropical greenery) surrounding them.
Because the central character – niece and cousin María Elena García (Emily Garcia Carrerou) – is a New Yorker not fluent in Spanish, the play’s dialogue flows back and forth between the two languages, as it does in so many Miami homes. And because Ramírez, who collaborated with Rivera on this version of the script, wanted to be sure that anyone not fully bilingual could understand each moment of the play, captions on the monitor screens display every word in both English and Spanish.
This world is so evocative that you’d swear you can smell the salt air, feel the splash of a waterfall in the El Yunque rain forest, hear the noisy nighttime song of tiny frog-like coquís as stars glisten overhead.
Ramírez’s design team – scenic and property designers Jodi Dellaventura and Natalie Taveras Rosario, lighting designer Eric Nelson, costume designer Darío Almirón, sound designer Ernesto Gonzalez – have collaborated to create a kind of artistic love letter to Puerto Rico.
That’s appropriate because the central story of “La Gringa” turns on the Christmas season visit of 22-year-old María Elena García (Carrerou), the daughter of Manolo and Norma’s older sister Olga, who left Puerto Rico as an economic émigré.
Born and raised in New York, María has never been to the island, but she truly, madly, deeply loves all things Puerto Rican – much to the annoyance of her cousin Iris (Analisa Velez), who is constantly annoyed by María’s over-the-top enthusiasm.
At home, María has always felt Puerto Rican; here, she’s called “la gringa” and viewed as thoroughly American. Her feeling that she is ni de aquí, ni de allá (neither from here nor there) has propelled her quest to solidify her identity.
As with anything so passionately imagined and idealized, María’s encounters with Puerto Rican life and her extended family aren’t always blissful.
Thinking she might stay if she can get a job in the Puerto Rican office of the New York insurance company where she works, she applies and gets turned down.
From the get-go, her Tía Norma (Real) is cool to her, keeping her at arm’s length but turning furious when a petulant María hurls her denim jacket adorned with the Puerto Rican flag onto the floor – Real’s sandaled foot practically vibrates as Norma fights the urge to smack her childish niece with her chancla.
“La Gringa” is a comedy suffused with many emotions – envy, tenderness, fear, loss, love in many forms. If God is in the details, City Theatre’s production is blessed with an ensemble that navigates all those varying moments with precision and artistry.
The younger members of the cast – Carrerou, making her professional debut after graduating from the New World School of the Arts last spring, Velez as the truth-telling Iris, Mario Silva as the dreamy farmer Ramón “Monchi” Reyes” – are all vibrant presences in the story. The blossoming romance between María and Monchi is an audience favorite, with lots of oohs and aahs every time their attraction almost leads to a kiss (no spoiler here).
Real and Armando Acevedo, who plays Norma’s good-guy husband Víctor, demonstrate their differences in the first scene when María takes leave of them by saying “bendición tía y tío (blessing, aunt and uncle).” Víctor responds with a sweet “que la virgen te acompañe (may the Virgin accompany you),” and while Norma says the same thing, her delivery is rote, devoid of emotion. Later, husband and wife have the kind of blistering argument that long-married couples try to avoid because it cuts so close to the bone – or the heart. Real and Acevedo are simply masterful in that scene.
Orizondo, a veteran actor with the region’s English-language companies, crafts one of the best performances of his long career as the ailing Manolo. His voice gruff from Manolo’s age and illness, Orizondo becomes María’s funny, encouraging, knowledgeable guide to all things Puerto Rican, including his revered Taino goddess Atabey. The tenderness of the evolving relationship between uncle and niece is at the heart of “La Gringa.”
As is typical at this time of year, celebration figures into the end of the play, with Manolo and then María scraping a palillo (a kind of pick with tines) rhythmically along a guiro (an instrument made from a gourd). Bomba, an invented-on-the-spot cross between music and poetry, is shared, as are dancing and food.
Then something sad if not unexpected happens. But because Ramírez, this cast and the designers have been so adept at guiding us through María’s journey, we embrace the full spectrum of emotions stirred by Rivera’s play. Qué maravilloso.
If you go:
WHAT: “La Gringa” by Carmen Rivera
WHERE: City Theatre production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 17
COST: $55 and $60
INFORMATION: 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org
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