Why Theatre, Why Now? Latino Theatre Projects and Teatro Útil

Photo by: Michael Brunk

Photo by: Michael Brunk

Latino Theatre Projects wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s something refreshing about the straightforwardness of its dedication to what it calls “Teatro Útil”: on its website, it claims that its mission is to “inform, enlighten, and engage audiences through presentation of thought-provoking literature,” and to empower the Seattle-area Latino community through its productions. These are obviously commendable goals, but they’re also a reminder that theatre can do social and cultural work—and they’re a battle cry of sorts, staking out a very specific space and purpose for their productions. In its framing of its latest show, Ay, Carmela!, which ran from September 21st through October 8th, LTP gets even more direct: “This is not a time to sit by as passive observers of the evil that is rampant in our communities, our country, and globally,” the program declares, and Ay, Carmela! is meant to be a cautionary tale about the risk of repeating history. 

A dramatic mission this plain and forthright can give clear urgency to a production. However, it also creates a set of expectations and constraints that must be carefully handled. Unfortunately, the black comedy of Ay, Carmela! never achieves the urgency and purpose of LTP’s statements, instead meandering through the Spanish Civil War without creating the sense of horror and recognition the prefatory materials promise.

Superficial resemblances between 1930s Spain and the United States of 2017 are easy enough to grasp; the risk of Franco’s authoritarianism, the hateful nationalism of his forces, and the violent response to protest hold some obvious relevance, although audiences unfamiliar with Spanish history have a while to wait before these elements become clear. (But when they do appear, any parallels with current politics are handled with a heavy hand.) The central story between the play’s only two characters, though, is confusing, off-putting, and unsure of how much it wants to lean into its pathos or its fart jokes.

The script itself is part of the difficulty. Adapted from the 1990 Spanish film of the same name, the play cuts the roles down to two parts, but seems reluctant to similarly streamline the plot details, resulting in a muddled storyline and scenes of awkward exposition where the characters remind each other of their own experiences. The surviving half of a married vaudeville duo, Paulino (Chip Wood) is haunted by the ghost of his wife, Carmela (Alma Villegas), who, for reasons not immediately clear, has been killed by Franco’s forces. The plot interweaves Paulino’s conversations with Carmela’s ghost and flashbacks to the fateful day of Carmela’s death, when she and Paulino accidentally crossed into Nationalist territory and were forced to perform for the troops—a performance that led to Carmela’s execution. But the disconcerting use of time often becomes needlessly bewildering, without emotional payoff for the confusion, and the bickering between Paulino and Carmela is filled with tired tropes of married interaction—aren’t women just so irrational? Aren’t men foolish when they don’t listen to their nagging wives? Moreover, there’s no real sense of fear here; Paulino’s nervous around the troops, but not living in terror, and Carmela’s lines seem so dismissive of any danger from the Nationalist forces that her ultimate gesture of rebellion might be more dense than brave.

The problems extend beyond the script, though. Comedy, especially the frantic, farcical comedy Paulino and Carmela perform under threat, can effectively create a sense of dread, but Ay, Carmela! never quite manages to do so. The way Paulino and Carmela act in private and the way they act when they’re observed by the Nationalists isn’t discernably different, and so their vaudeville frenzy near the end lacks punch. Although Villegas’s powerful singing voice could have been an effective, climactic moment of defiance, the emotion of her song feels disconnected from the rest of the play. Smaller things—the use of props, blocking, consistency over how drunk Paulino is within a scene—also never fully gel. Some of the comedy lands, but the message—if there is one, and the program certainly claims one—is lost.

All of this ultimately means that the particular usefulness of Ay, Carmela! fails to come across. This failure, though, might lead to more questions: How does a company go about making theatre that is ‘useful’? How much should productions spell out their parallels and relevance? How might LTP stage a play that doesn’t contain lines about the desert of immigrants or the necessity of protest? What, in short, qualifies as “useful”? The fact that this company is engaging so directly with just what it means to stage useful theatre is a hopeful indicator for its future, and more broadly for Seattle theater.

Latino Theatre Projects is young, and the eight productions its put on in its six years have focused on engaging the Latino community and create spotlights for Latino practitioners. Although Ay, Carmela! didn’t fully achieve its ambitious goals, LTP is a strong and interesting unit in Seattle’s community theater scene. Its dedication to theatre that challenges its audiences not to be complacent and seeks to make its productions a vital part of cultural conversations.

  • Produced by: Latino Theatre Projects
  • Directed by: Fernando Luna   
  • Written by: José Sanchis Sinisterra  
  • Adapted by: Nilo Cruz and Catalina Botello
  • Sept 21 – Oct 7, 2017, performed at Theater Off Jackson
  • Review Lead: Emily George / Review Team: Steph Hankinson