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Theatre in Review: Exquisita Agonia (Repertorio Espanol)

Luz Nicola, Gilberto Gabriel Diaz Flores. Photo: Michael Palma Mir

If you've been wondering where Nilo Cruz has been lately, you can drop in on Repertorio Espanol, where the Pulitzer Prize winner's latest drama is playing. The last decade or so seems to have had its effect on the playwright's style. Where earlier works like Two Sisters and a Piano and Anna in the Tropics relied on language and atmosphere for their effects, Exquisita Agonia is a classic family drama with a slightly pulpy undertone. Watching it, I kept thinking of the film of it that Pedro Almodovar would make.

This is nothing against Jose Zayas' highly capable production, but its premise is a little bit evocative of the mid-century America women's films that Almodovar adores so much. Millie, a famous opera singer, has recently been widowed by the death, in a car accident, of her husband, Lorenzo, a composer/conductor; his heart was donated for transplant. Millie now wants to make contact with the recipient -- and, being a good diva who can't be bothered with going through the usual channels, she works her considerable charm on Doctor Castillo, who performed the operation. Millie's reasons are less than scientific: She has an intuition that, in some way, Lorenzo lives on in the recipient.

Castillo is nonplussed at this idea, but, before long, Millie is corresponding with Amer, a simple young man from the country, who has been given a new life with Lorenzo's heart; he is recovering physically from the transplant but feels jittery and fragile. At first, he fends off Millie's written advances, but eventually agrees to a meeting.

The first act of Exquisita Agonia is charming but a tad listless, as Cruz takes his time establishing Millie and Amer's characters. There is more than a little element of flirtation between the two: Are we headed toward a May-December romance? Adding a certain piquancy to the question is Doctor Castillo's clear -- and more age-appropriate -- attraction to Millie. The bombshells fall freely in Act II, however, at a getting-to-know-you luncheon with Millie's family, in which all of the family skeletons are trotted out and Millie's rather foolish, vain idea of maintaining some kind astral-plane communication with Lorenzo, through Amer, is pretty thoroughly shattered. Indeed, by the time Millie's children are through, you have to wonder why anyone would have wanted to come near Lorenzo.

The combination of a flightly, flirty first act with the savagely hurled accusations of the second act does verge on soap opera at times, and, in fact, Exquisita Agonia often plays like a really juicy episode of series television. Then again, it is never dull, and Zayas' cast manages the hairpin turns in tone with the lightest of touches. Luz Nicolas captures Millie's practiced charm and her need to be the center of attention in any room; the actress has a nice way of making a flamboyant gesture -- an extended arm, a carefully arranged pose -- seem like an afterthought, as if everyone acted this way all the time. She provides the play with a solid center for the explosions that come post-intermission. German Jaramillo brings considerable authority and warmth to the role of Doctor Castillo, who allows himself to fall for Millie even as she finds herself the center of a family crisis. Gilberto Gabriel Diaz Flores brings some individuality to the underwritten role of Amer, who allows himself to be sucked into Millie's orbit and lives to regret it.

Gonzalo Trigueros brings on the furies as Tommy, Millie's son, who at first looks on Amer's arrival on the scene as something of a joke, and later recoils at the idea of this combination father/son figure entering his family -- and, finally, enraged, bares some horrifying family secrets. He is matched by Soraya Padrao as Romy, Millie's daughter, who finds her own ways of rebellion -- working as a tattoo artist and carrying a child by a father who is unidentified in the play; she also displays an interest in Amer that is, very likely, her way of competing for Millie's attention. Pedro De Leon is fine as Amer's brother, Imanol, whose happy-go-lucky attitude vanishes when confronted with Millie and her tortured children.

The production unfolds on a sleek, simple set by Raul Abrego, the main feature of which is a back wall consisting of internally lit windowpanes that are illuminated in different colors and spatial arrangements; the solid lighting is by Manuel Da Silva. Fernando Then's costumes and Rafael Lopez's sound, which makes good use of several classical music selections, are both well done.

My one reservation about Exquisita Agonia is that the material may be a tad too carefully, casually handled here. It may want a director who will push it a little more to its extremes, finding a style that might better knit together the two disparate acts; also, the action is sufficiently fast-moving and the dialogue so lively and plentiful that an English-speaking audience member may find himself looking more at the translation system offered at each seat than at the actors on stage. Nevertheless, this is a lively, well-acted affair that builds to some genuine dramatic fireworks. And it's good to hear from Nilo Cruz again. -- David Barbour

(30 May 2018)

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