Latino Chicago Theater Company

at Cabaret Voltaire

La Petenera, a play made up of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, is about a condition, something mournful and murderous–as complex as love or as simple as a folk song. Or it might just be a cautionary tale for strong women. It depends.

Originally produced at the Firehouse with stark, dramatic lighting and near-perfect acoustics, and under the direction of Rosario Vargas, the Spanish-language play was a surprise hit for Latino Chicago Theater Company. But this transplant at Cabaret Voltaire is a mere shadow of its former self.

A series of poems strung together to tell a loose story, La Petenera is wholly credited to Garcia Lorca by Latino Chicago, but some of the pieces sound adapted and at least one appears to be a tribute to Garcia Lorca by another Spanish poet, Antonio Machado.

The story opens in a dark, bohemian tavern, where two regulars, played by Laura Ceron and guitarist Tomas De Utrera, tell a collection of tales about those who come through–mysterious travelers, poets, anyone with a broken heart. The meanings of the word petenera are, literally, a style of Andalusian folk music and an intrusion. Here la Petenera appears as an independent woman, possibly Jewish or Gypsy, beautiful but not innocent. Even though she expresses no interest in them, two of the local men vie to woo her. After a murderous duel, the victor stakes his claim, but la Petenera rejects him. Unable to accept the rejection (“His love is too strong,” actor Gregorio Gomez explained straight-facedly after the show), he kills her. All the while, Ceron and De Utrera watch and comment.

Although the fliers for the show promise “dynamics” that “do not require knowledge of Spanish,” it became clear talking to non-Spanish-speaking theatergoers after the show that, although most enjoyed it, they were also somewhat in the dark about what had happened.

“It was so passionate,” said one lost soul, “and so, you know, ‘love conquers all.'” In fact, none of the non-Spanish-speakers who saw the show seemed to understand that the heroine is killed by a man who claims to be overwhelmed by love.

Produced in Cabaret Voltaire’s subterranean stage (to get there you have to go out through the back of the cafe, then down several uneven and badly lit steps), the show suffers in the claustrophobic performance space. The lighting, as compared to that at the Firehouse, is embarrassingly amateurish. In fact, the production is often–quite literally–in the dark. The low basement ceilings inhibit the choreography and often suffocate the rich voice of singer Felipe Camacho.

Perhaps most troubling, even if you’ve gotten over these production difficulties and your Spanish is just fine, are Ceron’s separate performance/recitations. Invariably, she seems unaware of Garcia Lorca’s more subtle meanings. More than once, she opts for volume over nuance; her open arms hang awkwardly and hesitantly in the air; repeatedly, her smiles contradict the pain of the words. Ceron, who replaced Vargas, hasn’t had much time to develop her role, but then you have to wonder why Latino Chicago chose to reopen the show unprepared.

Less problematic is Camacho’s performance. Gifted with a trembling, sorrowful voice that perfectly fits Garcia Lorca’s gypsy ballads, Camacho goes to the edge again and again, but he never quite goes over. His rigidity, even during the duel, undermines what should be a great emotional surrender. His perpetually tortured expression is simply not enough.

What makes the show worthwhile are the three other performances. La Poli, an Irish-Jewish flamenco dancer of great poise and strength, has choreographed a suitably powerful dance accompanied by De Utrera’s gitano, or gypsy, guitar. The dance, a tug-of-war in which Camacho should leave her for dead, plays out almost exactly the opposite: she just blows him away. De Utrera, who has become expert at accompanying the work of Spanish poets, punctuates the drama with music, rhythm, and the occasional verbal exhortation. For Spanish speakers it’s Gomez’s grasp of Garcia Lorca’s poetic shadings that gives La Petenera its soul. Gomez, himself a poet, is just vulnerable enough to give the melodrama some real heart.