The masks tease, the movements lurch, the dialogue bursts forth like water from a breached linguistic dam: it takes about ninety bedazzling seconds to realize you’re not in American-realism Kansas anymore. Friday’s opening-night performance at Milagro Theatre of Fermín de Reygadas’ 1789 comedy Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío (it translates, literally, as Tricks for inheriting a nephew to an uncle) is theater that revels in the theatricality of the artificial, wallowing in playful exaggeration and absurd variations on familiar themes.
I’m OK with that. I’m well more than OK with it: I’m delighted by it, and by Milagro’s funny, breezy, rough-and-tumble production. Astucias por heredar has a brusque vigor that feels like a tumble back in time to some theatrical beginnings, to the days of the traveling commedia dell’arte troupes of the 16th century and beyond, with their stock characters, instantly recognizable costumes, and populist appeal. Molière, whose plays Astucias resembles more than a little, added structure and witty verse dialogue and transferred the action to the French upper and aspiring classes. Even some of Shakespeare’s early plays, like The Taming of the Shrew, were influenced by commedia, and the old English Punch & Judy shows were commedia on a puppet platform. The form’s influence lives on in some of our best situation comedies, like the crisply stylized and brilliantly exaggerated Frasier.
Astucias por heredar has a pretty preposterous, and true, history of its own. Though it’s set in Madrid, it was one of the early plays written in the New World: Reygadas was a Spanish poet, playwright, astronomer and mining specialist (his true bread and butter) who emigrated to Mexico in the 1780s and remained a prominent figure there for the rest of his life. He wrote Astucias in 1789 and submitted it to the censorship board in Mexico City, where, the following year, a Father Ramón de Rincón denied permission for it to be performed, because, well, that’s what censors do (cue the current semi-official campaign in the United States to muzzle the free press). The good priest possibly considered the play dangerous because the rich old uncle is a lecher and a fool; the women and the servants contrive his comeuppance, thus endangering the stability of class and male privilege; severe flirting and bawdy suggestion occur; and, well, you know: it might undermine the Natural Order of Things. In other words, comedy.
It was a good tale, though, and somehow the script found its way to the recently established Spanish territory of Alta California, where it was performed in 1792 by members of the Catalan Volunteers, and eventually landed in a library at the University of California at Berkeley, from which it was dusted off and published in a critical and annotated edition in 2016. Milagro’s production is believed to be the first in the 228 years since the Catalan Volunteers romped through it in the wilderness, which surely qualifies this as one of the longest intermissions in theater history.
Back to here and now and Milagro’s little stage. Yan Collazo, creakity and most excellent, dry as the pit of a prune in a desert drought, is Don Lucas – master of the household, skinflint extraordinaire, accustomed to and expecting servility from any and all around him. Don Lucas seems to be at once teetering on the brink of death and lusting mightily after the young and beautiful Doña Isabel (Marian Méndez), whose mother, Doña Teresa (Bibiana Lorenzo Johnston), seems willing to allow her to marry the old man, since doing so will ensure their financial future. Unfortunately Isabel and Don Lucas’s nephew Don Pedro (a nervous and fluttery Enrique Andrade), who is desperately insinuating himself into his uncle’s favor to make sure he’ll be named prime beneficiary in the old man’s will, have a thing for each other. The crafty and sharp-witted servants, Lucía (a swiftly strategizing Verónika Nuñez) and Crispin (Carlos Adrián Manzano, reveling in the role of the prototypical servant-scoundrel who thinks rings around his master) are out to help Don Pedro in his dual quest, figuring that’s the best way to secure their own economic futures. And Sara Fay Goldman flits in and out of a variety of roles, including the legal beagle Don Justo, who’s on hand to help Don Lucas make out his last will and testament.
If you think you know where things are going from here, you’re probably right. But getting there is most of the fun. This play might as easily have been titled No Fool Like an Old Fool, and the comic possibilities of that are rich and ancient, deeply embedded in all sorts of cultures. Along the road to love and happiness notes are passed, false documents are signed, groins are thrust, bodies tumble out of cupboards, and false memories are planted – delightful little waysides on a reckless trip.
The journey is taken in Spanish, with English supertitles, and as the language tumbles out sweetly in its native tongue it establishes the rhythm, the essential musicality, of the play. A good translation is a wonderful thing (and in this case the supertitles have a tough time keeping up with the action; if you’re a non-Spanish speaker you might be better off just checking in on them now and again to make sure you know what’s what) but hearing a play or work of literature spoken in its original language is a rich and illuminating experience: Chekhov in Russian; Molière in French. It lets you get closer to the heart of the thing. It also helps immensely, in this case, that almost all of Milagro’s actors are native Spanish speakers and adept at the language’s song.
Director Robi Arce, in addition to holding a degree in theater from the University of Puerto Rico, is a graduate of Dell’Arte International in Blue Lake, California, which carries on the techniques and spirit of the innovative New Vaudeville movement of the latter quarter of the 20th century, and he goes all out with the physical exaggerations and brash stylizations of commedia. He keeps everything moving quickly, crisply, and clearly, with a fine sense of rhythm.
Arce designed the partial face masks that some of the characters wear, too, lending a ritualistic air to the proceedings. At least from early Greek times the mask has allowed a duality to performances, filling deep community ceremonial roles while also, in the case of commedia’s half-masks, allowing the actor room to crack the mold and create something personal. A mask allows a sophisticated gamesmanship in its interplay with the audience.
Blanka Forzán’s modest but playfully interactive set, with its suggested spaces and easily moving pieces (for instance, the actors take the action out of doors by simply pushing a streetlamp into place) melds easily into Milagro’s intimate thrust-stage space, and the rest of the design – Joeannaly González’ brightly showy costumes, Anthony Arnista’s lighting, Lawrence Siulagi’s sound, Sarah Andrews’ juggling of a thousand props – works nicely in the close quarters of the Milagro play space, where actors are a wink and a whisper away from the audience.
Astucias por heradar could be performed on a proscenium stage in a large hall with a big-budget design and a sharp fourth wall. I like it the way it’s done here: brash and reckless, a little rough around the edges, up close and personal, with an unpredictable edge. Like a commedia troupe just wandered into the village square and set up shop. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a show for you today. Come be amazed.
Astucias por heredar continues through March 3 at Milagro Theatre, 525 S.E. Stark St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.