Teatro Los Elementos, Cumanayagua, Cuba
Cuba seems like a blurry, surreal dream. A sleepless swirl of hot sun and muddy rain, diesel exhaust and blue ocean, camaraderie, strife, and lots of gutsy, visceral, expressive theater.
Our first stop was the artist compound of Teatro Los Elementos in Cumanayagua, a rural mountain town outside of Cienfuegos in southern Cuba. There we were welcomed in the most gracious manner by members of the company and workers on the compound, who soon provided us with the most delicious rice and beans, chicken leg, and guava marmalade an exhausted, travel weary actor could ever ask for.
Later that night, they gave us a preview of Arcoiris, an original play they were preparing for a theater festival in Colombia the following week. Two actors performed in the compound’s open-air rehearsal space – an enormous palapa structure with a concrete foundation, outfitted with a lightboard, a handful of lighting instruments, and a dozen or so wooden chairs upholstered with animal hides. A fantastic space where later we danced, and where later still, in the heat of the next day’s afternoon, a local farmer and his oxen watched us rehearse while waiting for his barrel to fill at the nearby water pump.
Now, contrary to popular belief – particularly in Cuba – I am not Latin and do not speak Spanish. Luckily, language comprehension isn’t always necessary to understand theater and I believe I understood the play well enough that night. Archetypically, the piece seemed to be about Satan tempting a Good Man to stray. I learned later that it also spoke to the prospect of the US lifting the embargo against Cuba, and to foreign influences tempting Cubans to stray from their own culture. A couple impressions from the play:
- The rictus smile of the Satan character, wielding two gilded hand mirrors like swords.
- The writhing, twisted physicality of the Man as he conducts rituals of protection within a circle of vessels, sticks, and lit candles.
- The stylistic friction between these two characters – the outward, presentational expressiveness of the devil, and the inward, experiential privateness of the man.
Looking back, the lasting impression I have of the evening recalls that same sense of community I noted after seeing Our Town. The actors and audience – in this case a large gathering families and children from the surrounding neighborhood, members of Los Elementos, and our faction of eight Americans – shared the same space as equal partners in storytelling. If you take away either audience or actors, the story cannot be told. At the moment I am quite drawn to theater that embraces this fact and reflects it in its aesthetic. Not just by breaking the fourth wall – a convention that is often an empty gesture – but by, I don’t know, by really sharing the space with the audience. Really truly being in the same room as them. Not just physically, but energetically and intentionally.
I wish I could articulate it better, and without resorting to such hippie speak, but that’s the best I can do at the moment. I think my brain is still sitting in a Coco Taxi flying down the Malecon.