The poet in twilight: Neruda before the fall

Milagro's 'Ardiente Paciencia' is a sweet lovers' tale before the outside world lowers the boom

To quote the flower-selling daughter of a well-known Cockney philosopher and man-about-town, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! … Is that all you blighters can do?”

Andrade, Samayoa, Mendoza: the poet and the lovers. Russell J. Young Photography

Andrade, Samayoa, Mendoza: the poet and the lovers. Russell J. Young Photography

Well, no. But even among the most poetically besotted, there are times when life moves beyond the magic of words, and speech should stop. Such a moment arrives, in Antonio Shármenta’s play Ardiente Paciencia, when the young lovers Mario and Beatriz drop their pretenses and their speaking and a good deal of their clothing, and do a slow sensual dance, rolling a fragile raw egg over each other’s bodies in looping patterns that may be like writing and are definitely about feeling and touching and just being. As Miss Eliza Doolittle wouldn’t have had to say if Freddy Eynsford-Hill had had half the gumption and animal sense of Mario the postman, just shut up and show her.

Words are central to Ardiente Paciencia, which has just opened at Milagro Theatre, and which revolves around the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in the latter years of his life but mostly before the 1973 right-wing coup d’état by Augusto Pinochet and his troops. That other, earlier, September 11 atrocity overthrew Salvador Allende’s elected Socialist government, with which the longtime Communist Neruda had been allied, and inaugurated decades of repression in a nation that had been a comparative beacon of democracy in South America.

But for most of Ardiente Paciencia (which translates as burning, or ardent, patience), politics lingers mostly in the background of what is a sweet and funny personal tale. It’s almost sunny, like one of those English-widows-escaping-to-Italy movie comedies, though less contrived, and eventually far more deeply shaded. Milagro’s production, directed with nuance and nicely shaped swiftness by Olga Sanchez, is really quite lovely: I recommend it. Especially during its first act it’s basically a sweet love story. Things grow darker, of course, after intermission.

Casting is impeccable. Enrique E. Andrade is bemused and wryly plodding and both funny and solidly rooted as the poet Neruda, puttering about his oceanside home in the little town of Isla Negra, south of Santiago. He is by this point world-famous, the pride of his town, referred to by the honorific of Don Pablo. Mario (Javier J. Mendoza) is the local postman, son of a fisherman, who likely wouldn’t have a job if Neruda weren’t inundated with so much mail. Mario learns about metaphor from the poet, and goes to him with his love-life problems, which consist mainly of a palpitating crush on Beatriz, (Siumara Samayoa), the beautiful daughter of the local innkeeper, Doña Rosa (Sofia May-Cuxim), who views Mario and his pretty words like a fox making hay in her henhouse. “If you confuse poetry with politics you’ll be pregnant in no time!” she shouts at Beatriz. The four stars are simpatico, playing off of one another easily and attractively, and together they make the audience fall just a little bit in love with them.

Now would be a good time to mention that the entire performance is spoken in Spanish, which some people will view as a distraction but I see as a strength. Supertitles are screened above the stage, not too wordy or literal but just enough to let English speakers keep a solid sense of what’s going on: the narrative never gets lost. And it’s good to hear a script that’s tied so intimately to a poet’s words spoken in the poet’s native language. We hear the inflections and rhythms that are the heartbeat of the poetry as it was written, and feel the telltale body movements that go with the spoken language. All four actors happen to have been born in Mexico, and although they speak English well, their performances gain a wonderful ease by being delivered in their native Spanish. My own Spanish is less than rudimentary; I pick up nothing more than a floating phrase here and there. But the music of the language comes through fluently, and its specificity would be lost in translation.

The production in the little Milagro space is simple and creative and quite effective. Jen Lamastra’s scenic design neatly combines the black rocks that give Isla Negra its name with an arch that suggests Neruda’s library and a corner that can become the kitchen of Doña Rosa’s inn. Costumes by Marychris Mass are period-perfect and neatly tailored; Ricardo Cárdenas’ music and Rory Stitt’s sound design are fluid; Kaye Blankenship’s lighting is nuanced; dance instructor Ingrid Fuentes has done her job well. Everything comes together with smooth simplicity. Ardiente Paciencia was adapted loosely for the Italian movie Il Postino, which kept the basics of the story but moved the action to Italy. I like having it set in Chile, because this seems such a quintessentially Chilean story. And it makes the darkening presence of Pinochet and his fellow rightists all the more palpable.

Samayoa, May-Cuxim: generational split. Russell J. Young Photography

Samayoa, May-Cuxim: generational split. Russell J. Young Photography

For most of its length Ardiente Paciencia leaves its darker implications outside of the playing circle, lurking but not impinging on the movement of the play: Neruda seems in a happy twilight of his life, and his benevolent spirit spreads like a balm over the others. The play makes its political points implicitly, concentrating on telling the tale of these four sweetly interlinking lives and then, late in the game, letting the outside world lower the boom.

That seems right to me. Authoritarian rule eventually exacts a steep toll on personal life, but often not until the private parties feel sheltered and secure. Latin American writers seem especially attuned to the conflation of the private and political. Mario Vargas Llosa, like Neruda a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, has argued (and this is a paraphrase) that sex is the most revolutionary of acts, because it’s purely personal: in the privacy of the act itself, government is an eternal outsider (and is also eternally trying to worm its way in). If language civilizes us and creates a culture of cooperation and possibility, the suppression of language deliberately represses people and free thought.

Skármeta’s play mostly leaves the threat of repression outside the door, but we know it’s there. In the end, something happens that is a direct result of the characters’ insistence on leading private lives guided partly by their love affair with language. This is what happened in Chile during the Pinochet years. That it happened with the aid and full support of the CIA and the Nixon administration, which were intent on continuing a Cold War proxy battle that had already failed in Vietnam, is essential to speak, but also somehow beyond description. Words can’t express the horror and disgust over that harsh fact.

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Ardiente Paciencia continues at Milagro through March 8. Ticket and schedule information is here.

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