Cuban Theater Troupe Makes U.S. Debut

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Indira Valdes, Carlos Cruz, Ivanesa Cabrera and Leandro Sen performed in La Visita de la Vieja Dama. i

Indira Valdes (from left), Carlos Cruz, Ivanesa Cabrera and Leandro Sen performed in Teatro Buendia's production of La Visita de la Vieja Dama. In the play, Clara Zajanin, played by Cabrera, celebrates her revenge on the mayor of Gula with her entourage. Maykel Farinas hide caption

itoggle caption Maykel Farinas
Indira Valdes, Carlos Cruz, Ivanesa Cabrera and Leandro Sen performed in La Visita de la Vieja Dama.

Indira Valdes (from left), Carlos Cruz, Ivanesa Cabrera and Leandro Sen performed in Teatro Buendia's production of La Visita de la Vieja Dama. In the play, Clara Zajanin, played by Cabrera, celebrates her revenge on the mayor of Gula with her entourage.

Maykel Farinas

Although there are efforts in Congress to ease the nearly half-century travel ban to and from Cuba, only occasionally does the U.S. open its doors to Cuban performers. Teatro Buendia, Cuba's premier theater company, is among the few — and is now performing at the Goodman Theatre's Latino Theatre Festival in Chicago.

The company is performing La Visita de la Vieja Dama — the visit of the old lady. The informal theme of the Goodman Theatre's Latino Festival this year is revolution, and in one scene, the play's main character, Clara — resplendent in a long black gown and a brilliant red headdress — sings along with a recording of the late Cuban star Celia Cruz — both exiles, both nostalgic for Cuba, for its palm trees, for its songs blowing in the breeze.

Playwright Raquel Carrio wrote this adaptation of the Swiss play The Visit.

Carrio says this tragic comedy is about a young woman who is ostracized and pushed out from her hometown, the fictitious Gula. Carrio infused her adaptation with Cuban and Caribbean sensibilities, rhythms and points of view. So Clara returns from abroad many years later as a wealthy woman to her hometown, which has fallen on hard times and welcomes her.

In 'Charenton,' the Marquis de Sade directs a play-within-a-play. i

In Charenton, the Marquis de Sade directs a play-within-a-play about the French Revolution, performed by inmates of the Charenton Asylum, including Antonieta, a young baker fixated on Marie Antoinette; Napoleoncito, a young actor fixated on Napoleon; and Juana, a girl who believes she is Joan of Arc. Diana Taylor/Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics hide caption

itoggle caption Diana Taylor/Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics
In 'Charenton,' the Marquis de Sade directs a play-within-a-play.

In Charenton, the Marquis de Sade directs a play-within-a-play about the French Revolution, performed by inmates of the Charenton Asylum, including Antonieta, a young baker fixated on Marie Antoinette; Napoleoncito, a young actor fixated on Napoleon; and Juana, a girl who believes she is Joan of Arc.

Diana Taylor/Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics

This is the first time Teatro Buendia has performed in the United States, but the troupe has traveled around the world. Roche Schulfer, the executive director of the Goodman Theatre, says the Cuban company's aesthetic and point of view fit the Goodman philosophy of how to approach classic work — "approaching classics as if they were new plays, and new plays as if they were classics," he says.

Henry Godinez, the festival's curator, was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. as a child with his parents shortly after Cuba's 1959 revolution. His first efforts to get Teatro Buendia to Chicago fell flat in 2003, but it was easier this time around. Godinez first saw the troupe perform La Visita in Cuba last December.

"I was sitting there in the audience, first of all laughing because it's initially very funny, but looking over my shoulder saying, 'How are they doing this?' " Godinez says.

Godinez was amazed because Teatro Buendia does not shy away from criticizing the Cuba of today, which jails many of its dissidents.

"I think that would be a surprise to many of us, especially many of my fellow Cuban-Americans in the exile community — that we think all artists in Cuba are blindly supportive of the revolution," Godinez says.

Flora Lauten, a professor at the University of Art in Havana, founded Teatro Buendia in 1986 with graduates of the school. Lauten, the group's artistic director, says that the company has never been censored, is no government mouthpiece, and that she and the troupe do not attempt to sugarcoat the reality of their country as they see it.

"First of all, my generation made the revolution. But that doesn't mean that when years pass you have to have a passive attitude towards what you made when we were young," Lauten says. "You have to reflect on your reality, and then you have to talk about what you think is not going in the best way."

Besides, says Lauten, Cuban authorities know the company produces quality work with few resources, and has garnered international acclaim. The company's presence here might have stirred protests in other parts of the U.S., but Chicago's Cuban population is small, and the Goodman's Latino festival is not likely to become a cultural battleground.

Instead, the theater company will weave traditional Cuban music and dance with the words of its playwright — all in Spanish. But Lauten says Teatro Buendia is very physical and uses lots of images to bridge any language barriers. She just hopes audiences will come with no preconceptions.

"We show not only our rhythms and our music, we show our scars. And that's so universal that if the audience opens up, I think that we will embrace each other," Lauten says.

Teatro Buendia will perform in Chicago though the middle of the month. Its opening night was nearly sold out.

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