“Ay, Carmela!” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

On paper, Ay, Carmela! must have sounded sure-fire: a play by José Sanchis Sinisterra about the Spanish Civil War which has been done all over and made into a movie… a new translation (adaptation?) by Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz… a set by famed architect Frank Gehry, whose designs include Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao… music by Gustavo Dudamel, the dynamic young music director of the LA Philharmonic… lighting by multiple award winner Jeremy Pivnick.

Unfortunately, the production now playing at the Hudson Mainstage, directed by Alberto Arvelo, is sluggish and incomprehensible and, despite being termed a comedy, is steadfastly, painfully humorless.

Alejandro Furth and Eloisa Maturen. Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography

Alejandro Furth and Eloisa Maturen. Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography

Ay, Carmela! introduces us to Carmela (Eloísa Maturén) and Paulino (Alejandro Furth), a pair of second-rate vaudeville performers touring Spain in 1938 with an act which includes flamenco, comic sketches, and an… ahem… specialty number, about which more later. They’re fervent patriots – especially Carmela – who support the nationalists in the Civil War, but who accidentally find themselves behind enemy lines, and are forced to perform for Francisco Franco’s fascist forces. While Paulino is fearful enough to dissemble, Carmela can’t control her anti-fascist passion, and in a fiery climax, is shot to death.

I should say I was able to assemble that synopsis only from reading the program notes and online research, because, alas, none of it comes across on the Hudson stage.

The confusion begins with the program, the cover of which proclaims the play was “adapted by” Nilo Cruz and Catalina Botello, but whose interior states it was “translated by” them. Adaptation and translation are not necessarily the same thing: “translation” implies a faithful transcription of an author’s work, line by line, whereas “adaptation” is a more freewheeling term, possibly indicating changes in tone, characters, plot points, time lines, and so on. Having not read the original Spanish, I can’t say for sure whether the problem here is bad translation, bad adaptation, or simply a production whose shapelessness and lack of focus accords every moment as much weight as every other moment, meaning there’s no build, no momentum, and no way to know what’s happening.

The opening is promising. After the (awkward) removal of a screen upon which newsreel footage of the war has been projected, a severe-faced soldier (Tomás Decurgez) strides onto the stage and sternly tells us to silence our noise-making devices and unwrap any candies, then goosesteps off. A mild-looking man, Paulino, enters silently, looks around, touches some of the set pieces, faces the audience, and begins to dance. Then, without warning, a fart. Then another. And another. His movement becomes a Dance of Farts – apparently Paulino’s specialty. It’s as if the farteur Le Petomane has been brought to life in a Spanish theatre. Ah! you think, this is going to be fun!

Alejandro Furth and Eloisa Maturen. Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography

Alejandro Furth and Eloisa Maturen. Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography

Well, you’re wrong, as that’s the last laugh of the evening, which proceeds for an earnest two hours, not the 100 minutes the program indicates as a running time.

The good news: Mr. Gehry’s set is simple yet arresting. Forming a faux proscenium across the top of the stage is a panel consisting of a Bosch-esque cacophony of writhing bodies, rendered in black and white except for one in red. Below it is a partial backdrop suggestive of theatre curtains, but looking as if it’s constructed of artfully crumpled paper; a staircase to… heaven?; and several pieces of furniture painted in bright, primary colors: a red trunk, a yellow chair, a blue table, an orange gramophone, and, as a prop, a bright green wine bottle. They’re visually striking, but one can’t help wondering what the geometric abstraction of the shapes and the child’s toybox colors mean: the costumes (nicely done by Dianne K. Graebner) are realistic, so why the expressionistic furniture?

Mr. Pivnick’s lighting is, as usual, elegant and imaginative, and the music by Mr. Dudamel and Nascuy Linares is serviceable.

Alejandro Furth and Eloisa Maturen. Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography

Alejandro Furth and Eloisa Maturen. Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography

The actors are talented, but the production is so flat their performances inevitably suffer: when everything is accorded equal weight, it’s difficult to discern the difference between playfulness and urgency, or even to know what’s happening in the moment. The highlight comes in the fitfully entertaining second act, when Ms Maturén performs a bravura but all-too-brief dance which justifiably earns cheers from the audience.

About an hour into the first act, Paulino sighs, “I don’t know what this is.” It’s a dangerously apt line, as I found myself thinking the same thing. A lot of talent has gone into Ay, Carmela!, but the result is stultifying.

Ay, Carmela!
Written by José Sanchis Sinisterra
Translated by Nilo Cruz & Catalina Botello
Directed by Alberto Arvelo

Through December 13

Hudson Mainstage Theatre
6539 Santa Monica Boulevard
Hollywood, CA 90038
Tickets: 323-960-7792 or www.plays411.com/aycarmela


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