Flowers spring from the stage. A miraculous healing frees a gruff old priest from blindness. A little girl dies by inches, trapped in mud after a volcanic eruption. Other extraordinary--incredible, even, to a mind trained in Western rationalism--events appear as natural occurrences. The impossible is made plausible, and the result is magic--"magic realism," to be exact.
Although the concept comes to us from Latin American writers, "magic realism" has inspired artists around the world--including those at the Denver Center Theatre Company, where Pavel Dobrusky and Per-Olav Sorensen have adapted Isabel Allende's The Stories of Eva Luna and other tales into an intriguing evening of theater.
With its intertwining plots, fantastic characters and compassionate view of tragic deaths and trying lives, Stories weaves a tapestry of simultaneous events unveiled by a woman who is witness to a great many lives, none more important than another. She is Eva Luna, storyteller, web-maker.
The play opens with a voice-over narration. Eva Luna offers the fable of Scheherazade, who told stories to fascinate her murderous husband and keep herself alive. The stage is covered in white, silky fabric, and a pile of white pillows holds a sleeping Eva as the lights come up. Her journalist lover comes to her, but leaves to follow a story that changes him forever: A little girl, Azucena, lies trapped in silt and water. The journalist stays with her, feeding her and giving her drink. But although many reporters show up, no one produces the pump that can free Azucena.
Meanwhile, other characters drizzle or dance through, interacting kindly or cruelly. One man fights with his drunken father, beats his own bride and incarcerates another woman in a basement--for 47 years. An activist priest with a passion for justice defies the authorities (both temporal and spiritual). A wonderful comic character, he accepts his miraculous recovery of sight with the same gruffness with which he greets every other circumstance of his life. A woman meets a handsome foreigner and dances with him, wordlessly. They grow old together through the action, always silent, always dancing.
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And then there's the story of Belisa and the handsome Colonel who employs her. Belisa realizes that few opportunities exist for a woman without skills. But she wants neither the life of a prostitute nor that of a servant, and chooses instead to sell words. She learns to read and write, and offers her clients secret words that only they can use. Because Belisa loves the Colonel, she offers him two such terms--a two-edged favor. The Colonel decides not to be a tyrant, and to win over the people. Belisa writes his speeches, and each word becomes a flower... The sequence is funny, beautiful and poignant--the most magical, imaginative narrative of the evening. It balances the tragedy of little Azucena in its affirmation of life and art.
The excellent staging and set design by Dobrusky and Sorensen is another artistic affirmation, creating an impressively fantastic atmosphere for the tragicomic lives before us. Patricia Mauceri is all mysterious elegance as Eva. John Hutton as the grieving journalist almost sinks the viewer in anguish, only to buoy the entire play as the lovesick, flower-spouting Colonel. Leandro Cano projects disturbing violence and arrogance as the bridegroom, and vicious obsession as the jailer of young Hortensia. Michael Cullen's priest, with his ferocious righteousness and political passions, yanks hilarious detail from the jaws of cantankerousness. Kathleen M. Brady as the doting sister of the priest surprises us, too, as a voluptuous dancer.
Occasionally the storytelling grows too literary, tedious--and long. The length tends to undercut the power and wizardry of the fables; twenty or thirty minutes could be eliminated from the evening without harming the play. Still, in the end Scheherazade's spell liberates the audience into a greater sense of life and connection.
Stories, through April 9 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, 1245 Champa St., 893-4000.