by Lynn on February 22, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Panasonic Theatre, Toronto. Written by John Weidman. Directed and Co-choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Music by Bajofondo, Gustavo Santaolalla. Choreographed by Julio Zurita. Set by Riccardo Hernandez. Costumes by Alejo Estebecorena & Javier Estebecorena/ Hermanos Estebecorena, Lighting by 3D Design Corporation/Vincent Colbert, Sound by Peter McBoyle. Projections by Peter Nigrini. Starring: Verónica Alvarenga, Soledad Buss, Juan Cupini, Marianella, Carlos Rivarola, Mario Rizzo, Micaela Spina, Julio Zurita.

Plays at the Panasonic Theatre until May 11.

Arrabal is vibrantly choreographed; danced to within an inch of its life; full of muscle, smouldering men and women dancing variations of the tango full tilt; throbbing, pulsing music that is played at an ear-splitting level 10; and a story that is absolutely mystifying, if not confusing.

Because there is no dialogue except one word, we have to rely on projections, video and a kind of mime to tell the story. A projection tells us it’s 1979 in Buenos Aires. Huge screens flash video coverage of riots etc. along with news-reading talking heads reporting it all, in Spanish, which the majority of the audience, I will venture to say, does not speak. There are no surtitles. Again and again those video clips explain what was happening, in Spanish. I knew there had to be an English talking head eventually and it finally came. General Jorge  Rafael Videla had taken over the government and began his reign of terror.  Thousands of people were tortured and disappeared.

A young man named Rodolfo wakes up and comforts an infant in a crib. His mother, Abuela, comes in to comfort the baby as well. There does not seem to be a mother of the baby. I wonder about that. I’m not alone.  There is no explanation. The young man puts on a t-shirt that has a large P and V on it. I don’t know what it signifies but his mother indicates that it’s dangerous to wear it. He puts on a jacket that covers it up somewhat. His mother gives him a jaunty hat to wear.  I see a character over at the side of the stage with a placard that has a phrase with a P and a V but can’t read it because it’s in Spanish and the placard is upside down. It’s not a good thing to begin a show in confusion as to what the letters stand for.

Rodolfo meets his friends in a club where the tango is always on the go. (Buenos Aires, Tango is the name of the club). Eventually some thugs? police? charge in and beat Rodolfo, I guess because of the objectionable t-shirt. He is taken to a secret police station, tortured, the shirt is ripped off him and thrown away. Then he is shot dead and never seen again

18 years later…. a young woman sleeps in bed. A woman off stage calls her name “Arrabal” to wake up. She is Arrabal, the baby now grown up. The woman calling her name appears and of course it’s Abuela, Rodolfo’s ma, and Arrabal’s grandmother. Abuela is very protective of Arrabal and ensures she stays in the house while she (Abuela) goes out. Abuela puts Rodolfo’s picture around her neck and goes to the plaza with the other mothers wearing pictures of their ‘disappeared’ sons/daughters around their necks, silently walking to show their defiance. So the mothers silently protesting is important to the story, but actually showing Arrabal’s mother or explaining what happened to her, is not. Mystifying.

As Arrabal is pinning the laundry to the line outside, some slimy looking guys move the clothes line. Arrabal, all innocent beyond belief, goes to the place in the yard where they moved the line. They dance around her in a taunting way. A slimy guy in a shiny suit and hat beckons her to follow him and she does. They go to a place (projections says “Pension” I can figure that out).  There is a room for her and a slinky, deep pink dress on the bed. I’m thinking they are coercing her into a life of prostitution. At the side of the stage is that lit sign that says: Buenos Aires Tango. Is it really a tango club? A front for a  brothel with tango dancing for fun? I’m not sure anymore, if I ever was.

Next we are in an office of the club. A middle aged couple (El Puma and Berta), perhaps the owners of the club or prostitute ring, puts a box on the table. The woman takes something white, like a folded bag or a folded sheet or something–we don’t know what it is as it’s not unfurled–out of the box and gives it to the man who can’t bear to look at it. It’s put back in the box. Mystifying.

Arrabel, now in the dress, is beckoned by the slimy guy in the shiny suit and hat, into the club where all sorts of people are dancing an energetic tango or variations of it. Many men want to dance with her. She demurs. The middle aged man of the club approaches but then backs away. Another man is intrigued by her and so is Arrabal by him. He is Juan.  But the man is with another woman (Nicole). Jealousy ensures.  Men crowd Arrabal. Juan fights them off. He also has to fight off Nicole.

In the ladies’ room Arrabal meets the other women. They crowd her. She must defend herself. It’s hard especially with Nicole flipping her long blonde hair in her (Arrabel’s) face. Somehow clothes are taken off to the undies and a raunchy dance results. Men arrive. They paw Arrabal. Juan saves her and takes her to her room and puts her to bed and leaves.

In the mean time Arrabal’s father appears to her in dreams and she dances with him. El Puma it seems was a good friend of Arrabal’s father. It’s not clear. They did play together as youngsters. They also protested together and when Arrabal’s father was shot dead, El Puma somehow got the shirt. That is what was in the box and only later in this show did Berta take it out and unfold it so we could see what it was. Perhaps El Puma felt guilty for not doing more for his friend. I don’t know because in the scene in the club when Rodolfo was taken away, El Puma was not highlighted as being there at all.

In the end Arrabal falls in love with Juan. Her grandmother (Abuela)  happens to wander into the club and finds Arrabal and they embrace. Arrabal introduces Abuela Juan. The guy in the shiny suit and hat takes off his hat and gives it to Abuela. It’s the same hat she gave to her son. El Puma reconnects with Abuela. They all do a furious dance in the end and the show concludes with the throbbing music and flashing lights.

I hated this show.

Exhausting, mystifying and so confusing you wonder if all those who worked on this for three years were actually in the same room talking to each other about how it just doesn’t make sense.

It’s a nice idea to think that you can tell a complex political story in dance, mime and projections, but it doesn’t work here. At every turn every indication is that this show is mean for an Argentine audience who would understand the history and the language. Why have the world premier in Toronto? Just because Sergio Trujillo, the director/co-choreographer is from Toronto? Think again, please.

All the scenes in the program are in English but it’s so dark in the theatre during the show, you couldn’t read it. Call me crazy but I thought the show was supposed to tell me where I am in the progress of the show. Or am I supposed to guess?

The names of the songs and music are in Spanish with no translation. Mystifying.

Sometimes people sing a mournful or angry song, again, in Spanish with no translation. Mystifying.

The story is so spotty and lacking in information and detail that it made my teeth hurt because I was gritting them. The music is so loud and throbbing it’s like you are being rammed into submission.

The tempi are the same. No variation. The music is not memorable, and I don’t care how many Academy Awards  Gustabo Santaolalla won (Breakback Mountain, Babel) or how energetically Bajofondo played—they also co-composed the music.

The dancing is terrific but I want to know what contribution Mr. Trujillo made and what Julio Zurita contributed.

There are several characters named in the program, in order of appearance, but since some of them are on stage before the show starts, giving the audience a tango lesson,  who knows who anyone is. Only Arrabal is actually named. Perhaps I’m supposed to figure this out by looking at their pictures in the program—which I can’t read in the dark.

Arrabal needs another pass, perhaps by people not so invested in it, to be edited with a sharp eye and no sentiment. At the moment it’s just a loud dance show with a story that seems to be serious that makes no sense to an audience that doesn’t know the history or the language.

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