Open now through Sat, May 20
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Give Me Shelter
At Teatro Dallas, Chilean playwright Egon Wolff’s 1963 work The Invaders feels especially relevant to today’s political climate.
The cast of The Invaders at Teatro Dallas
Dallas — For Teatro Dallas, Cora Cardona has adapted and directed an English version of the Latin American landmark play Los invasores (The Invaders) (1963) by renowned Chilean playwright Egon Wolff (1926-2016). It is required reading in most Masters of Spanish reading lists, and it’s the second production of a Wolff play we’ve seen this year after Kitchen Dog Theater’s Paper Flowers in February.
The original opened on Oct. 19, 1963—the year that socialist president Salvador Allende was popularly elected—and was directed by famed Chilean director Victor Jara at the Experimental Theater of the University of Chile (Teatro Experimental de la Universidad de Chile). In the midst of the worldwide changes that were taking place in the aftermath of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and its subsequent alliance with the Soviet bloc, this play created quite a raucous during its time. Critics from the right detested it for ridiculing upper and middle class values, and the left asserted a similar stance by accusing Wolff of not understanding the struggle of the proletariat.
Through an absurdist aesthetic and metatheatrical trope (or maybe better said in the fashion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), this play’s action centers upon the invasion of a rich family’s home by the ultra-poor.
Notably and strangely appropriate today in the aftermath of the Trump election, with its glorification of ostensible wealth—no matter how it was acquired—The Invaders looks at what we, the audience, already know too well: the material and moral corruption that sometimes accompanies amassing large fortunes. If during the time of this piece’s opening the world still believed in the happy confluence between democracy and capitalism, it is no longer possible in a post-U.S. military coup of the Allende presidency and the bloody aftermath that the Pinochet dictatorship brought about. And, for us now in the U.S., we may be looking at, for the first time in the history of our democratic state, the closest thing to a blatant plutocracy.
Other than inserting a reference to the first (and only) Mexican indigenous president, Benito Juárez, from Cardona’s native state of Oaxaca, the play remains true to the original text.
Meyer (Byron Holder) is an industrialist with a possibly shady background, who lives in a lovely mansion (with a sleek and aesthetically pleasing set design by Nick Brethauer) with his bejeweled wife Pieta (Grisel Cambiasso) and their offspring, Marcela (Robyn Clayton) and Bobby (Max Torres). One fine evening, after returning from a formal evening of entertainment, Meyer hears noises coming from the downstairs living area only to find a ragged but astute and eloquent homeless man who goes by the name of China (played by Omar Padilla, who grows in depth with each production).
Through a quasi-absurdist dialogue, China convinces Meyer to give him some bread and allow him to spend the night. Well, as the saying goes, give them an inch and they will take the whole nine yards, that is the crux of this play. Next enters a female indigent, Toletole (Barbie Bernier), who nearly drowned after jumping into the river. Next is the ominous Ali Baba (J.R. Bradford), the fieriest of all, and finally the comic relief, Gimpy (Martin Mejia) whose amputated foot appears as a bouncing ball quite matter-of-factly.
The English translation does justice to the play on words and the brilliant logic displayed in the original. Holder’s Meyer becomes touchingly humane when his dialogue with China turns into a confessional soliloquy. A well-nuanced performance here. Cambiasso’s Marcela resists elegantly and convincingly. She conveys the righteousness and ignorance of a woman of her class (think a cross between the French queen Marie Antoinette and Mother Teresa). Clayton’s Marcela hangs onto and attempts to influence through sexual suggestiveness. Torres’ Bobby comes across as a genuine, innocent idealist, while Bradford’s Ali Baba and Bernier’s Toletole push and pull in an effort to defy or follow China’s ideological program of not pushing Meyer over the edge. Bernier’s infuses innocence and playfulness to her Toletole, making her a visual treat.
The ensemble works well together; the energy and pace is even.
One downside is that the concept for the make-up is unclear: some of the characters wear a minimal amount, other have a lot in an attempt to make them look wealthy, poorer, younger, or older, and some of the “invaders” have stage make-up that would work well in a larger space. When the actors are within a few feet of the audience, like in Teatro Dallas’ intimate black box, less is better. Their facial expressions are enough.
Also, the ending seems way too abrupt, as if both the actors and the audience need more time to breathe it in.
This is a wonderful play by an established Latin American playwright, and Cora Cardona continues to broaden Dallas audience’s repertoire with quality work. The Invaders has the timelessness of great plays, which defy their own circumstances to offer relevance in the present.
» Dr. Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latinx theatre in the Department of Spanish at the University of North Texas. She is also a steering committee member of the national network, the Latinx Theatre Commons.