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Theatre in Review: La Breve y Maravillosa Vida de Oscar Wao (Repertorio Español)

Maite Bonilla, Mario Peguero, Edgar Sebastian. Photo: Michael Palma Mir.

Translating a novel to the stage is frequently a tricky proposition, but when the book is Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, one is openly asking for trouble. At first glance a fairly straightforward family drama, it is in fact a darkly fatalistic tale shadowed by the tortured history of the Dominican Republic under the dictators Rafael Trujillo and Joaquín Balaguer. A story of death and dissolution across three generations, related in a caffeinated style composed of street slang, Spanish, smack talk, and superhero mythology, and loaded with footnotes that frame the action in its grisly historical context, it's a supremely seductive piece of work, a wisecracking, high-energy tragedy with magic-realist elements, a saga both epic and intimate made especially distinctive by its narrative fusion of cultural sensibilities. Getting even a quarter of the book's richness onstage would probably require some kind of unorthodox, incantatory approach.

What it gets at Repertorio Español is a straightforward, workmanlike run-through of the book's main narrative, minus its highly individual voice, and stripped of much of its power; Marco Antonio Rodríguez's adaptation puts one in mind of Reader's Digest Condensed Books. The title character -- his name is a joke, a corruption of Oscar Wilde -- is an overweight, cripplingly shy Dominican-American youth who spends his time scribbling science-fiction epics that he refuses to show to anyone. (As an emblem of his sci-fi nerddom, he is addicted to Akira, the 1988 "Japanese animated post-apocalyptic cyberpunk film," in Wikipedia's succinct summation.) The first act follows Oscar's tumultuous freshman year at Rutgers, where he bonds with the skirt-chasing Yunior, the main narrator of the novel, here made into a kind of sidekick to the leading characters. Yunior furiously woos Lola, Oscar's independent, politically minded sister, as Oscar falls hard and fast for Jenni, a punk-goth type who treats him as her platonic best friend. These scenes play largely as straight-up campus comedy that climaxes, jarringly, in a pre-intermission suicide attempt.

The second act dispatches Oscar to the Dominican Republic, where he convalesces under the guidance of La Inca, his grandmother. It also brings to the fore Beli, Oscar and Lola's indomitable, withholding mother, who doesn't let her ongoing struggle with cancer keep her from working multiple jobs and hectoring her children. It is here that the source of the family's fukú, or curse, is revealed -- it has to do with the horrific circumstances behind Beli's birth and her catastrophic affair with one of Trujillo's married lieutenants. Also showing up is Ybón, the prostitute, with whom he falls desperately in love, thus guaranteeing that he will repeat his mother's history, with even direr consequences.

In Rodríguez's telling, the shift in tone between acts is especially grating, undermining the narrative's power; even during flashbacks to horrendous events, there are misbegotten plays for laughs. Completely absent is the novel's persistent sense that the characters are -- without even knowing it -- fighting back against a terrible, preordained fate. Also, surprisingly little is made of the novel's racial politics, focused on the differing statuses of black and white Dominicans. You'll get a taste of Díaz's novel, but practically none of its extraordinarily pungent flavor.

Under Rodríguez's direction, a number of characters are whittled down to a single dimension. In the book, Oscar is a profoundly touching figure, a poet's soul trapped in a body and persona that make him eminently ignorable; as played by Edgar Sebastian, he is a one-note loser, clutching his hands into fists and showing the same innocent face throughout. (The script does capture, correctly, Oscar's strangely stilted manner of speaking.) Mario Peguero's Yunior is a standard sex-comedy playboy, amusing enough when tutoring Oscar in the ways of Dominican manhood, but not at all the regretful, observant character that Díaz imagined. La Inca, who harbors the family's secrets, is a powerful, mysterious figure in the book; despite the considerable best efforts of Arisleyda Lombert she is made into a stereotypical hysteric, fending off evil spirits with an atomizer loaded with holy water. Altragracia "ANova" Nova does rather better as Lola, who has little use for Latin playboys and falls for Yunior against her better judgment. Maite Bonilla's Beli is, arguably, the production's biggest success: She is exactly as formidable and remorseless as one expects, whether reliving a past marked by violence and fear or engaging in verbal wars with Lola. If Belange Rodríguez is a little long in the tooth for the college student Jenni, she is effectively rueful as Ybón, whose choice of customers proves to be ill-advised.

At least Rodríguez's direction is fast-paced; however, the scene changes, in which the actors adopt superhero stances to switch out props and furniture, often clash tonally with what we have just seen. The action unfolds on Melanie May's set, which cleverly invokes the manga imagery that so inspires Oscar. Inés Zapata's lighting makes good use of color and spinning patterns to give the action a fantastic edge. Leni Méndez's costumes and Nathan Leigh's sound design are also okay. The production is staged in Spanish, with English surtitles.

With this ambitious project, this fine company's reach has for once exceeded its grasp. This Oscar Wao is, decisively, less than wondrous, a timid introduction to a knotty, enthralling book. -- David Barbour

(21 October 2019)

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