A man in a dark shirt and mustache stands left. Just in front of him is a woman with long dark hair in a black dress.
Eric K. Roberts (left) and Kris Tori in North & Sur at Water People Theater Credit: Dante Padilla

Water People Theater’s last full-length production was The Delicate Tears of the Waning Moon, presented in September 2019 as part of the Destinos: Chicago International Latino Theater Festival, written by and starring artistic director Rebeca Alemán under the direction of Iraida Tapias. Alemán’s story of a Venezuelan human rights reporter struggling to regain her memory after a violent attack left her in a coma was a stirring and bold examination of a woman living with trauma but still defying societal repression. The company stayed busy with virtual productions during the shutdown, but their current show, North & Sur, is a triumphant and intriguing return to live performance.

North & Sur
Through 10/5: Wed-Fri 7 PM; Instituto Cervantes of Chicago, 31 W. Ohio, waterpeople.org, $30 ($20 seniors/students/industry). In English and Spanish with bilingual supertitles.

Written by Venezuelan poet, playwright, and journalist Oscar Perdomo Marín and directed by Tapias, this play in some ways also celebrates a woman who defied convention and paid a price. But Marín’s play, though it does (as the title suggests) present issues of colonialism and imperialism in the “New World,” works best as a chamber piece about the different ways we view “tragic” poets along gender lines—and how they might view each other across barriers of time, language, and geography.

The two poets here are Edgar Allan Poe and Alfonsina Storni. The former probably needs no introduction to anyone who graduated from an American high school—the mere invocation of “Nevermore!” might well make you think of an ominous corvid. And indeed, “The Raven” figures into Marín’s script, offering a siren call to Storni, who joins Poe in an afterlife disquisition on poetry and exploration of the traumas and losses these writers faced.

Storni, born in 1892, was a modernist poet and playwright of Italian and Swiss heritage who spent most of her life in Argentina. She took her own life by drowning after a cancer diagnosis in 1938. (Her friend and possible lover, Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga, also ended his life through suicide a year before Storni’s death.) A single mother, Storni scandalized the hoi polloi of Buenos Aires with her unconventional lifestyle as much as Poe did by marrying his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia—who died, as did most of the women Poe loved, from tuberculosis.

“Everyone in the south is always looking to the north,” Kris Tori’s Storni tells Eric K. Roberts’s Poe. But as this poetic bilingual show unfolds over 80 minutes and three different settings in the Instituto Cervantes venue (a small cabaret room, a library, and the theater), it’s Storni who provides the spark of life as contrast with Poe’s lugubrious outlook.

In some ways, North & Sur follows the template of other shows set in an amorphous afterlife that places great artists in conversation with each other. (Aguijón Theater’s Cintas de Seda, written by Norge Espinoza Mendoza and presented in last year’s Destinos festival, comes to mind.) But it also exerts its own irresistible siren call, aided by the live violin accompaniment by Argentine musician J. Andrés Robuschi and the subtle but effective set and art direction by Marisabel Munoz and lighting by Karen Wallace. With empathetic and passionate performances from Tori and Roberts, it adds up to a suitably otherworldly look at poetry and love that still feels embodied in the very earthly qualities of the writers at the heart of the story.