Fermín de Reygadas

Spotlight on: Robi Arce and The Lost Play

In Milagro's 18th century lost comedy "Astucias por heredar," the director finds a link between today's issues and commedia's craft

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.

Robi Arce: director, physical theater artist.

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.”

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No fool like an old fool

Milagro rediscovers a long-lost comedy from 18th century Mexico and takes it for a brash and funny 21st century spin in commedia clothing

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.

Back row, from left: Bibiana Lorenzo Johnston, Marian Méndez. Front, from left: Carlos Adrián Manzano, Vorónika Nuñez, Enrique Andrade, Yan Collazo, Sara Fay Goldman. Photo: Russell J Young

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.

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