Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge,MA
through June 18, 2017
Tickets: $25-$85, 617-547-8300
“Arrabal” is a theatrical Rubik’s cube in which music, movement, emotion, and story line are inseparably connected in order to portray a horrible stretch of Argentine history. If you like ballet, modern dance, and Cirque de Soleil, chances are you’ll love "Arrabal". Each form tells a story, more or less linear, that we kinda/sorta figure out. We’re ok filling in the blanks. When the language is Tango, the most dramatic dance form on the planet, who cares about the blanks.
In 1976, Argentina became paralyzed by fear and governed with brutality after the violent overthrow of President Isabel Peron by a right-wing junta in 1976. More than 30,000 objectors to the coup - activists, students, workers, teachers, amongst others - were seized, some with reason, others on whims known only to the police who carried out the dictator’s authoritarian policies. Many were tortured. Most were never seen again. They became known as the Desaparecidos, the Disappeared. An infant at the time, Arrabal never knew that her father became one of them.
The first act, “1976”, depicts Arrabal’s father’s transition from playful to active resistance. A popular member of a tango club in Buenos Aires, Rodolpho, the father Arrabal never knew, joins the resistance in the streets, much to the anguish of his mother, who knows in her heart that he is doomed. From scenes of ardent, tormented tango in several sequences, we see him brazenly wearing his opposition T-shirt, then arrested, beaten, and eventually killed.
The second act, “18 Years Later”, is the saga of the tango club owner who summons Arrabal, the naïf from the outskirts of Buenos Aires who has been raised by Rodolpho’s mother, to the club so he can tell her how and why her father died. The scenes in which women congregate with black and white images of their loved ones hanging around their necks are haunting, the eyes of the mother’s beseeching us… “Have you seen him?” “Have you seen her?”
Dramas before and after Shakespeare use a comic character to give us a chance to laugh to relieve tension. Mario Rizzo as El Duende, the messenger who connects Arrabal with the owner of the tango club, does a seriously quirky version of street dancing and tango that got generous applause every time he entered. Julio Zurita, spectacularly emotive as Rodolpho, choreographed the show brilliantly. Soledad Buss in the role of Nicole, jilted lover of the man who becomes Arrabal’s protector, is fire and ice to Arrabal’s ingénue innocence as she encounters urban tango culture.
Tango is a dance of maximums and minimums. Dominant, often acrobatic displays of breath-taking fluid sensuality one moment, then the arch of an eyebrow, the nearly imperceptible shift of a shoulder the next. Every solo, pairing, or ensemble routine, whether or not it fills in the blanks of the sometimes elusive story line clearly, was met with cheers from the audience.
Sub plots abound - between flirtatious couples, men competing to seduce Arrabal, the man who protects her, and women competing for the attention of their men (and vice versa). All present a chance to stage a heady fusion of tango, ballet, modern dance, and earthy street dance that set the play squarely in Buenos Aires and light it on fire with the same Argentine passion that fueled the insurrection.
This is the kinetic version of the bleak period in Argentine history that director Sergio Trujillo wanted to make as an homage to the resilience of his countrymen and women during the repressive regime. For the trio of Trujillo, composer Gustavo Santaolalla, and writer John Weidman, tango became the language of revolution.
The A.R.T. is a world-class theater. Like a chameleon, it changes size and configuration to suit each play it presents. For this production, you can choose to sit in one of the two dozen round top cocktail tables in what is called ‘The Sunken Cabaret Tables” section just below the footlights or in the regular orchestra seats.
The American Repertory Theater has it all going on. The sound system has the power of cannon fire. The five piece band Orquesta Bajofonderos acts as a muse, predicting or underscoring the drama unfolding on stage. Cleverly situated on an upper level on the left side of the stage it pounds out the most robust and searing rock infused tango music you’ll ever hear. The backlit set suggests the working class barrios of Buenos Aires.
The stage is big enough to hold spectacular scenes of ensemble dancing that left me in awe of the athletic strength of the men and the silky grace of the women. Tall, short, thin, muscular, a bit zaftig, with a range of faces you’d see on a bus in Buenos Aires, they are perfectly cast to represent the people who rose up after 1976.
The cast of dancers and musicians is from Argentina. Many of them appear to be too young to have experienced the repression first hand but all of them must know someone whose family or friends were affected. The intensity with which they dance is a visceral expression to purge the pain of history and an exhilarating statement to declare “Mo Mas...Never again.”
Addendum: This link helped me understand the play even better - the musicians explaining the cultural stew that created tango and what they call ‘milonga’, a vibrant music/dance environment still evolving today. Give it a read before you go~
Photos courtesy of https://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/arrabal
Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.