'Manteca' A Take On Life In Cuba
Tale of Family Life Dramatizes Flaws In Political System
By Michael Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 25, 2004; Page PG24
"Before 'Manteca,' no other play showed real life in Cuba," director and actor Harold Ruiz of Teatro de la Luna says of the 1993 comedy-drama by Alberto Pedro Torriente. "Manteca," which loosely means "lard" in English, may be the most famous Cuban play of the past decade. It will be showcased in two special performances in Spanish (with simultaneous English translation via headsets) April 1 and 2 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center's Kogod Theatre in College Park.
By the early 1990s, economic subsidies from the former Soviet Union had disappeared and life in Cuba had become increasingly difficult. Playwrights such as Torriente began turning out plays less supportive of revolutionary ideals, many using family dynamics to expose flaws in the system and skirting censorship with indirect messages. "Manteca" focuses on one family examining the gulf between their bleak daily existence and their hopes for a better future.
Celestino (Ruiz) is a macho, Russian-educated engineer and Communist who married a Russian girl. She has returned home, taking their children and leaving Celestino enraged, frustrated and lonely. Brother Pucho (Peter Pereyra) is a gay intellectual "working on" a book he will never finish. Sister Dulce (Leslie Yañez), who holds the little family together, is apolitical but offers some of the play's most amusing comments on life and events nearly 35 years after Castro took power.
"I loved this play since I saw it in Havana, and I remember opening night, when I was absolutely shocked after the first five minutes," the Cuban-born Ruiz said.
The play is a series of vignettes taking place on New Year's Eve in a cramped, ramshackle Havana apartment, where the three siblings debate plans to kill someone or something, an act they feel may provide them with a little "lard," which colloquially refers to wealth or well-being. The act would come with a high price, however.
"Nobody knows who they are talking about," Ruiz said. "In that period, the people needed just about everything and there was a lot of repression, so everybody thought they were talking about killing Fidel Castro and couldn't imagine how it was possible to discuss that."
Ruiz remembers that the play was not censored, probably because it was so funny and because the script eventually takes a less politically provocative, although no less interesting, course. He said producers would only run the play for two weeks at a time, taking breaks before authorities could pay it much attention.
Claustrophobia is the overwhelming motif. Living conditions for the family and their neighbors are crowded and squalid. The island nation itself is cut off from the world, underscored by Mario Marcel's set, in which the living quarters float in a sea of bright blue, three large knives stuck into the floor around the perimeter, possibly foreshadowing violence or dramatic action.
This production has a multimedia component, with Latin music, lighting changes and filmed scenes of Cuban life projected over the entire set during transitions.
Teatro de la Luna is a Spanish-language theater company based in Arlington, with a mission of promoting cross-cultural understanding. The simultaneous English translation, provided by skilled actors, is strikingly effective.
Ruiz has refocused the play somewhat for American audiences, darkening the mood. "I decided to go deeper into the psychology of each character," he explained. "In Cuba, it is performed more as a comedy, but people here won't understand all the jokes and specific situations that Cuba had at the time, so I chose to go deeper into each character and made it more dramatic."
Of life in Cuba a decade after the play was first performed, Ruiz says, "A few things are little bit better, but most things are worse."
"Manteca" will be performed April 1 and 2 at the Robert and Arlene Kogod Studio Theatre of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, at Route 193 (University Boulevard) and Stadium Drive on the campus of the University of Maryland. Performances at 8 p.m. This is a Spanish-language performance with simultaneous English translation via headsets.
El Tiempo Latino
(Oct. 24, 2003)
“Manteca” audaz y real
El Teatro de La Luna estrena obra cubana
Por Milagros Meléndez-Vela
El Tiempo Latino
—¡Hay que hacerlo! —¿Hacerlo? —¡Hacerlo!
Tres hermanos, dos hombres y una mujer, se debaten entre actuar con valor o permanecer inmutados ante una situación que los agobia.
Se acerca fin de año y antes de su llegada deberán haber quitado la vida a un ser. ¡Ese es el acuerdo! “Es lo mejor para todos”. Sin embargo, no es tan fácil como lo habían pensado.
Por una hora y diez minutos el Teatro de La Luna escenifica el dilema de Celestino (Harold Ruiz), Pucho (Peter Pereyra) y Dulce (Leslie Yáñez), los protagonistas de “Manteca”, la comedia de contenido social con gran repercusión en los últimos diez años en el teatro cubano.
“Manteca”, escrita por Alberto Pedro Torriente en 1993, fue concebida después de la gran recesión que sufrió Cuba a inicios de los años 90. El fin del comunismo en Rusia significó a la isla la suspensión de miles de millones de subsidios provistos por la Unión Soviética.
El deseo ferviente por empezar una nueva vida en medio de la miseria, embarga a los tres hermanos que a pesar de ser muy diferentes entre sí, convergen en una sola idea: “matar al ser”, causante de sus problemas.
La pieza es fuerte al dibujar la situación extrema de las familias en un régimen comunista, golpeado por la pobreza. El diálogo es bastante audaz: elementos de comedia, se entremezclan con un lenguaje alegórico permanente en la pieza, con un paralelismo constante entre el ser a quien van a matar y el dictador Fidel Castro.
Frases como “él viene del campo y nosotros somos de la ciudad” o “hay que matar al ‘animal’” son indicios de la valentía de la pieza, que ha sido puesta en la misma Cuba y ha recorrido varios países de América y Europa.
La obra es dirigida por Harold Ruiz, quien siendo cubano, toma cuidado de cada detalle en la obra, para reflejar el contexto que él mismo experimentó mientras vivía en la isla —recién tiene tres años en Estados Unidos.
El juego de luces es un componente importante, le da fuerza a la escena, individualiza a cada personaje y mantiene la tensión en el público. Insertos de cortes documentales que describen visualmente la gente de La Habana dan un toque de tristeza y nostalgia en un punto crucial de la obra.
Con “Manteca” Ruiz hace su estreno en el Teatro de La Luna. “Agregué algunos textos a la obra para hacerla más cercana a este público”, expresó Ruiz, quien actúa además como Celestino.
En la actuación Ruiz se muestra sobrio y se adentra impecablemente en el personaje, hasta el punto que aún al terminar la pieza y a pesar de los aplausos permanece con el rostro serio que merece el papel de Celestino.
Peter Pereyra (Pucho) es parte del elenco de La Luna, su intervención es sólida y muy vivaz. Explota con profesionalismo el carácter de su personaje: un escritor idealista.
Por su parte Leslie Yañez (Dulce), quien con esta obra regresa a La Luna, pone el toque de sentimentalismo a la pieza.
“Manteca” es la primera obra cubana que La Luna estrena en sus trece años de temporada. “Muy aparte del carácter político Cuba es también Latinoamérica “, expresó en la presentación el productor Mario Marcel.
Washington City Paper:
(Oct. 23, 2003-Oct. 30, 2003)
Manteca ("Lard") Alberto Pedro Torriente uses the impending death of an animal as a metaphor in his tale of modern-day Cuba. The manteca (lard) in the title of Teatro de la Luna's frenetic one-act is a family project of brothers Pucho and Celestino and their sister, Dulce: a pig they've been secretly raising in their Havana apartment. It's New Year's Eve 2000, and the sibs have agreed that this is the day they'll slaughter their treasure and harvest its much-needed protein. The butchering will also release subversive novelist Pucho, Russian-educated engineer Celestino, and middle-aged, distracted Dulce from their pressure cooker of secrets and stench. Actor/director Harold Ruíz's Celestino is an overwound spring, angrily denouncing all of their problems as a lack of cojones. Pucho (Peter Pereyra) is a dreamer and halfassed philosopher, obliviously working on his unpublishable novel as he putters around in his pajamas. Leslie Yañez embodies Dulce's fear of change heartbreakingly, carefully meting out the family's rice ration even as she reminisces about the good old days of the missile crisis. Ruíz keeps the cast moving: jumping on furniture, chasing each other to force confrontations, and then retreating to their private spaces as befits a family--and a country--going stir-crazy. Manteca is a claustrophobic experience in which the struggles of one family symbolize the isolation of their nation: They must kill their beloved pet to have what has become unknown in their country--not Utopia, but simply "the possibility of something different." (JH) Gunston Arts Center Theater II, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 8 p.m. $18-$25 to Nov. 15 (202) 882-6227
“Manteca” in Spanish. “Lard” in English. The three-person play by Cuban playwright Alberto Pedro Torriente is performed as it was written, in Spanish. This gives it a certain energy and fire which is well portrayed by the cast. If you don’t speak Spanish, simultaneous translation into English is available through headsets. The translation is precise but unobtrusive enough to allow the Cuban sensitivities to come through from the three viewpoints the author uses in what is essentially a three-sided conversation. It is filled with references that the participants recognize instantly for what they are, but which the audience needs to decipher as more and more information becomes available.
Storyline: In modern day Havana two brothers and a sister share an apartment. They also share hopes, fears, a history and, as siblings are wont to do, not a few irritations. One New Year’s Eve they bicker over a decision they are facing and the concerns they have over their pasts. What begins as mere bickering escalates and the presentation which begins as highly naturalistic scenes of conversation becomes more abstract as elements of film projection and allegorical staging effects build to a climax.
The three actors on stage create distinctly different characters, each clearly hewing to their own view of the world. As an ensemble they create a sense of family. As individuals, they have very different stories. Leslie Yáñez is the sister, still irked at the failure of the outside world to support Cuba under Castro - she goes on about everything from the decision of Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles that prompted the crisis with Kennedy (“Niki is an indian-giver” ) to “those seven nations that are always meeting in Europe.” Her theory is that Cuba is depressed because “we never had dinosaurs” and therefore, don’t have oil deposits. Peter Pereyra is a poet/novelist with a life style his siblings can’t fully understand let alone condone. Harold Ruíz is the older brother who went to Russia to study engineering but whose life has come to much less than he expected as the Soviet Union collapsed, his wife left him and took their children back to her homeland.
Ruíz also directs and he paces the performance fairly mechanically as the script only seems to provide a single progression from minor squabbling among siblings through to the climax. Still, it is a short, one-act play so it is a short excursion from squabble to culmination. He has the benefit of a fine, three sided set design by Mario Marcel consisting of the sister’s segment of the apartment on one side, the older brother’s trunk on the other and the poet/novelist’s quarters on a raised platform where he has been kept a bit separate. The final staging effects are something of a mixed bag with video that isn’t quite well established and a red cloth effect that makes a quick impression.
The new translation equipment which Teatro de la Luna has obtained this season provides what the theater refers to as something akin to “live dubbing” in clean, clear sound. The cast in the booth reading off the English script but timing their delivery to the pace of the action on stage do a fine job. The combination of well directed, clearly enunciating translators and quality audio equipment makes it possible to keep the audio level low enough to catch the rhythm and tone of the actors on stage making the experience quite satisfying for those who aren’t fluent enough in Spanish to follow it in its native language.
Written by Alberto Pedro Torriente. Directed by Harold Ruíz. Design: Mario Marcel (set) Mike Daniels (lights) Daniel Cima (photography) Mario Panameño (sound and stage manager). Cast: Peter Pereyra, Harold Ruíz, Leslie Yáñez. English translation cast: Marcela Ferlito, Anthony Gallagher, Ed Johnson.
In "Manteca," Cuban playwright Alberto Pedro Torriente attempts to stuff the ailments of his countrymen into a cramped Havana apartment. Written in 1993, "Manteca" ("Lard") is meant as a sociopolitical statement on the plight of Cuban citizens after their government's subsidies dissolved along with the Soviet Union. But though the theme of hardship is universal, the significance of the play's finer details may be lost on an audience not already familiar with the lives of Cubans.
On New Year's Eve in 1999, three siblings are about to come to a boiling point. Dulce (Leslie Yañez), sister and mother hen; Pucho (Peter Pereyra), writer and dreamer; and Celestino (Harold Ruiz), hard-headed working stiff, have been living with a secret that prevents them from opening their windows or speaking to the likewise impoverished neighbors: They're raising a pig. And though the three had agreed to slaughter the animal as a rich kickoff to the new year, they're now questioning the timing, the method and who the lucky killer should be.
The pig is not all that's troubling them, however. Pucho is gay and struggling to write a novel, Celestino may be gay as well and is suicidal over the fact that his wife took their children back to her native Russia, and Dulce, though she mostly frets about keeping peace in the household, makes occasional references to topics such as "that Garcia Marquez guy" and her assertion that dinosaurs never roamed Cuba.
The problem with "Manteca" is that references are all you get. The play, presented by Teatro de la Luna in Spanish with English translation available, will likely confuse speakers of both languages.
In Torriente's brief script, the characters seem to talk at each other more often than to each other, all three occupying the same room yet lost in their own thoughts. Therefore Dulce's speech on how dinosaurs led to petroleum and certain countries' financial security is immediately followed by Celestino musing, "Potatoes are much more nutritious. The moment will come when rice will no longer be the basis of our diet." There are one-time mentions of a lack of vaccines, the missile crisis and xenophobia. An abrupt video montage, during which the actors are silent and swelling music accompanies images projected on a wall, shows random people in a village, a touch that may add a feeling of sentimentality but otherwise lacks significance.
Teatro's staging, for all the script's flaws, is solid. Ruiz, who also directs, makes a lean, fiery Celestino and coaxes similarly passionate performances out of Pereyra and Yañez. The set, a threadbare living area, is appropriately nondescript, but the production's dramatic lighting embellishes such scenes as an eerie dream sequence and a candlelit episode that follows a blackout. "Manteca" builds to a frantic and metaphorical finish, which is perhaps a misstep considering the verbal jumble that precedes it: After the characters tangle themselves in a rope and Dulce cries out, "The feetsies! The feetsies! The feetsies!" -- a reference to their precious pig's hoofs -- even audience members tuned in to Torriente's social commentary are sure to leave scratching their heads.
Manteca, by Alberto Pedro Torriente. Directed by Harold Ruiz. Set, Mariano Lucioni; lighting, Mike Daniels; sound, Mario Panameño. Approximately 1 hour 15 minutes. Through Nov. 15 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 202-882-6227.