Heritage, art, purpose: Robi Arce is a man on fire. These driving passions have merged to make Arce, who is Puerto Rican by birth and a physical theater artist by training, a man on a mission. Very little of anything he says is casual. He knows what he thinks, he knows why he thinks it, and perhaps most importantly, he knows what he plans to do about it all. Arce is very clear: He wants to change the world. “The physical theater work I do is fueled by social justice. I come from a colony. I know what oppression looks like.”
It’s not hard to understand where this serious mien comes from. As you read this, roughly forty percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power following the stumbling U.S. federal and local recovery response to the devastation of last fall’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria. For Arce, that’s a reality that’s personal. His family is still there. When he’s talking about their plight and he says, “the struggle is real,” there’s not a whiff of irony about it. That’s real talk.
His love for his people and his culture is palpable. Time and again Arce, who directed El Teatro Milagro’s current hit Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío, talks about how he wants to be the engine behind theater by, for and about the Latino community, particularly the youth. He’s developing curriculum for this explicit purpose, for which he’ll be applying for a grant from the Regional Arts and Cultural Council. It’s not about excluding other people, he stresses. It’s about helping his own. “I know what the issues we go through back home look like. Being here, it’s a whole different world. I just want to focus on Latinos because I know the struggle, especially in these times, with what we are going through.”
Arce speaks just as frankly, just as directly, about his art. When he says, “the stage is the temple,” he’s not just spouting art-speak, he lives by that truism. It fuels his approach to his craft. Like any artist who considers himself or herself a soldier in the war for social justice, Arce’s weapon is his art, and theater is the means by which he’ll strike a blow for change. For Arce, his weapon — his passion — is physical theater. Dance, movement, gesture-work, “anything that the dramaturgy is led by movement in space, not by someone writing. I believe in the poetry of movement in space.” After getting his Bachelor’s from the University of Puerto Rico, Arce applied to — and got into — Dell’Arte International school of physical theater, in Blue Lake, California. “When I went to Dell’Arte I got the whole spectrum of physical theater work,” he said. That spectrum included mime, clown, melodrama, puppeteering and, of course, commedia dell’arte.
So when Roy Arauz, producing creative director at El Teatro Milagro, was looking for someone to direct an actual, straight-up, long-lost play from Latin American history, a play that has not been produced in the 200-plus years since it was banned, he knew where to turn.
“Roy reached out to me last year after I did El Muerto Vagabundo,” Milagro’s 2016 Día de Muertos show, Arce said, “and he said, ‘I have a play. If you like it, the job is yours.’”
The play, whose full title is Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío (which translates to “Tricks to inherit, a nephew to an uncle”) was written by a man named Fermín de Reygadas, a type of Renaissance man of Spain, who came to the “New World” in the late 18th century. Astucias was banned by the Spanish censor, according to the description for a roundtable discussion of the play and its history to be at Milagro 3-5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, for presenting “Enlightenment ideologies that fueled the US War of Independence and the French Revolution” and raising ”Questions … about social stratification, indigeneity, race, and gender roles” and “the relationship of the Latin American colonies to Spain.” It seems Astucia was performed once, by a traveling troupe in California, some time before Mexican independence in 1821 (proving, it seems, that censorship doesn’t work) and either luckily or unluckily wound up gathering dust in the Bancroft Collection of the University of California at Berkeley.
Now, Astucias has come to light again, and Milagro got a hold of it before anybody else did. “It is,” says Arce, “a big responsibility.”
Along with the sheer weight of that responsibility, the play presented other challenges. Reygadas is heavily influenced by the theater of Spain’s Siglo de Oro, its Golden Age of the 16th and 17th centuries, when Spain experienced its own personal High Renaissance in the arts and literature. El Greco painted his famous works and Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. Likewise, on the Spanish stage, the nation’s classic playwrights wrote their classic plays, such as Calderon de la Barca’s La Vida Es Sueno (produced by Milagro in 2000) and Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna. What that means is that not only was the play epic in length, it was in verse. “It’s very hard to find actors who are fluent in Spanish and can flow with the verse,” says Arce.
Arce saw something else in Reygadas’ play: “All the characters that he has in the play are archetypes of commedia (dell’arte). What’s great about it is, he plays with the hierarchies. That’s what commedia dell’ arte does. It takes the hierarchies of society and breaks it into characters that we still recognize today.”
For Arce, there was still more to it. Astucias is a comedy of manners, manners we don’t necessarily have any more. Arce is using commedia as a type of short-hand, a means of making those manners, gestures, attitudes present and active — and funny — for a modern audience.
And then Astucias is, of course, written fully in Spanish. Milagro’s production includes supertitles for English speaking audiences, a situation that Arce sees, at best, as an economic necessity. “My goal with this play is to be very physical so the audience is not looking at the supertitles all the time. Personally, I hate supertitles. I want people to actually be focused on the stage and even though they don’t understand what (the actors are) saying, they’re getting the meaning.” To that end, an intensely physical method of storytelling, which commedia dell’arte is, will hopefully draw the eyes of the English-only segment of the audience to the stage, rather than to the narrative crutch of the supertitles. “That’s why I believe physical theater is powerful, because it can transcend any language barrier. That’s my goal. I know it’s very ambitious.”
Even more so, because commedia dell’arte is, after all, a skill set. “People think commedia is easy but it takes training. There are a lot of things you have to have in consideration and in your body; a lot of muscle memory to put it in your body. It takes time.”
This, of course, made for a herculean task that Arce had set up for himself and his cast. They had to learn commedia dell’arte. “It’s hard for anyone to get the commedia rhythms so that there is a sense of urgency that is happening.” For the physical vocabulary of commedia, Arce used an interesting metaphor: “If you take a cartoon and you go in slow motion, you see all the beats.” Essentially, the actors had to break the character movement down that precisely, and then play it back at speed. “We had to go through all this scaffolding of things, so they could start getting a sense of the clarity you need to have in movement.”
It doesn’t end with the delineation of the archetypes, “Arlecchino” or “Il Dottore” or “Pantalone.” When the lights go up, every moment counts. “With physical theater, I don’t take the stage for granted. Entrances and exits, they have to be super-clear. Every entrance, every exit, is purposeful. It’s not ‘I’m just walking to the stage to say my lines.’ In this play, you’ll see transitions. The actors are the all of this show. They do the transitions. They change characters, they change costumes, everything is moving all the time. It’s vital.”
Another essential facet of commedia dell’arte is masks that represent and delineate the archetypes they portray. Astucias has several, many of which were contributed by Arce himself.
Robi Arce has acted at Milagro and taught at Oregon Children’s Theatre. This is his first time directing in Portland. He’s taking a daring approach to a play no one alive has ever seen, in a town that’s not familiar with his work. But no great art was ever made by playing it safe. The world has never been saved that way, either.
Milagro’s Astucias por heredar continues through March 3. Ticket and schedule information here.
See Bob Hicks’s ArtsWatch review of Astucias por heredar here.