New Age Hispanic American Repertory Theater

at Saint Augustine College

No wonder director Rolando A. Arroyo-Sucre insists that his company members abstain from drugs and alcohol. Otherwise, people would think his productions were drug-inspired hallucinations, with their wild colors, fantastic costumes, and highly fluctuating vocal patterns and intonations. But The Wedding Dress is steeped in the traditions of Calderon and Bunuel rather than in those of Timothy Leary.

The Wedding Dress was written in 1943 by Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues. The play is believed to have single-handedly changed the direction of Brazilian theatrical writing, making it more competitive with the European avant-garde theater of the time. Rodrigues introduced expressionist techniques and ideas, including distortion and exaggeration, as his characters move freely through time, place, and appearance. In The Wedding Dress, he used these techniques to explore psychological theories of death and sexuality. This was a violent departure from the then current Brazilian theater, which was highly naturalistic and focused primarily on local concerns.

The Wedding Dress takes place within the confused and traumatized reality of Alice (Anita Merriman-Vargas), a modern young woman. In the play, she searches out and finds Madam Clessi (Maria Garcia), a beautiful, rich courtesan from long ago, and the two go back and forth in time and imagination in an apparent effort to bring back Alice’s memory. There are also jaunts into yet another time and place, in which an operation is being performed, but the audience is kept guessing as to who is on the operating table. It could be Alice or Clessi, or even Peter (Ken Walsh), Alice’s fiance or husband (Alice is confused as to which he is) whom Alice claims to have killed.

Director Arroyo-Sucre uses expressionist techniques of distorted and exaggerated scenic elements that are popular in South America, where he grew up. He combines these with the experimental methods of the influential, turn-of-the-century Russian director Vsevelod Meyerhold to create a world where anything can happen. On the theater’s enormous stage (the proscenium is 74 feet wide), fact and fantasy, imagination and reality coincide without delineation between them. It is a theater of images–of sound and light and shapes–rather than of narrative. Even at the end of the play, much of the outcome of the story is left to the imagination.

Arroyo-Sucre comes to directing via the field of structural engineering, which gives him a unique outlook on theater. It is in that field that he first encountered the theories of Meyerhold, who tried to physicalize the psychological action of a play, using the stage as a painter would a canvas. If a character was acting childish, for example, Meyerhold might actually have that character skip rope or climb a jungle gym as she delivered her lines. His set designs, then, were abstract, geometric machines, full of wheels and cogs and ramps rather than scenery. Meyerhold also developed an actor training method called biomechanics. He thought of an actor’s body as a machine that should be perfected, and so trained actors in acrobatics and sports as well as rigorous vocal techniques. He also played with the tempo and rhythms of a piece, sometimes greatly speeding up or slowing down all the action, like changing film speeds in a movie.

Arroyo-Sucre takes many techniques from Meyerhold, particularly his experimentation with rhythms and vocal patterns. At the beginning of The Wedding Dress, for instance, the women who speak to Alice use only their upper registers. As Alice becomes involved with the day of her own wedding, Madam Clessi moves across the stage in slow motion, both vocally and physically, like a film wearing down, or perhaps more like a ghost. At another point, all the actors become like small children, skipping and speaking very quickly. Like Meyerhold, who was accused of turning actors into puppets for a director, Arroyo-Sucre has clearly had a strong hand in every moment and aspect of the stage picture.

Arroyo-Sucre’s is not a completely alien style. We see it in films somewhat, most notably in those of Bunuel, where a bear can wander through a house to symbolize the Soviets. Indeed, The Wedding Dress uses filmlike quick cuts, and Arroyo-Sucre asks us in the program to “experience The Wedding Dress as you would a film.” And yet, it is theater, and there are few models for understanding it in terms of the live stage in Chicago, or indeed in the U.S.

Kabuki comes close. Like Shozo Sato’s Kabuki productions, the play is run by a benevolent dictatorship. Every costume, set piece, and sound cue was designed by Arroyo-Sucre. Also like Sato, he coached his actors in every vocal nuance and physical gesture. They share a sense of carefully choreographed, highly ritualized theater, in which every little detail carries some meaning. But unlike Kabuki, there is an underlying wildness in the work. There is an underlying tension between apparent order and imminent chaos. But even that chaos would probably be exciting in Arroyo-Sucre’s hands.

Certainly, there are flaws. The production values are quite uneven. Some of the costuming, for example, is gorgeous. Madam Clessi parades about in a great headdress, looking in the shadows like a giant peacock. Alice’s wedding dress is also stunning. Each layer she picks up reveals another texture, another mood. But some of the costumes are just plain cheap and poorly made, with little attention paid to body types or fabric choices. The same can be said for both the lights and sets. Some were brilliant, some almost shockingly amateurish.

The two intermissions go on forever. (When the second intermission was over, the entire audience, when I saw it, thought the play was over and got ready for the postshow discussion.) Partly because of this, and partly because of its drastic change of focus, the third act is a bit hard to watch.

Still, the sheer differentness of the work is enough to keep one’s interest with a minimal amount of fidgeting. Their next production will be Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer, using the same techniques as with The Wedding Dress. Now, that should be interesting!