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Theatre in Review: Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes)/Where We Stand

Top: Frances Ines Rodriguez, Andrés Quintero. Photo: Maria Baranova. Bottom: Donnetta Lavinia Grays. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Two new productions turn on vital questions of democracy and citizenship; one of them makes powerful use of specifics while the other flounders in a fog of generalities. Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes) an En Garde Arts' production at La MaMa, also scheduled for a tour of the boroughs -- unfolds at a community center in a New York City church where a group of immigrants -- most of them undocumented -- come together regularly to make music and remind themselves of the possibility of joy. A party atmosphere prevails, edged with anxiety and sadness, with singing acting as a defiant gesture in favor of life. As far as action goes, that's about all there is to Andrea Thome's script. It's an evening of vignettes, its structure more than a little scattershot, and I often found myself longing for a stronger organizing principle. But the characters are hard to forget, and each of their stories is quietly revelatory. These people live their lives perched on a tightrope.

One advantage of Thomes' approach is that it sheds light on so many different aspects of the characters' experiences, especially the peculiar web of constraints that shapes their daily lives. There is, for example, the aborted romance of Rogelio, who cares for horses on a farm, and Mariposa, the organizer of the fandango, who works in a deli. They once had a moment together, and Rogelio would like to get it back, but as Mariposa poignantly wonders, what future can there be for them? He has a wife and daughter in Honduras, whom he supports but hasn't seen in a decade. She struggles to send money home to keep prevent gaps in her ailing mother's course of treatment. Both are caught between the past and present, weighed down by responsibilities to their loved ones but hungry for affection in the here and now. (Separation is a recurring motif here: Rafaela, another attendee at the fandango, was a toddler when her mother departed for a job in Spain; they haven't seen each other since, leaving Rafaela with a permanent hole in her heart.) This little scene is one of many that forces us to think freshly about the characters: In our ongoing (and rancorous and mostly self-serving) debate about immigrants no one ever pauses to note the corrosive loneliness that, too often, is their lot.

Rogelio and his cousin, Elvin, are awaiting the arrival of a third relative, Johan, who is making his way into the country, smuggled in by a "coyote." When he doesn't arrive at the expected moment, their uneasiness becomes a tightly controlled panic. The general fear is doubled when Rafaela, another attendee, wonders about the whereabouts of the friend she planned to meet at the fandango. For everyone, seemingly minor incidents -- a get-together that doesn't happen, a missed phone care -- are perennially fraught with the possibility of menace. A knock at the door increases the general tension, as do rumors of ICE raids in the neighborhood; suddenly, going outside for a walk becomes a calculated risk. Rafaela, who has her papers and belongs to a family of cops, offers to contact her uncle for help, an idea that is instantly and fearfully dismissed.

Johan, by the way, is coming to the United States because he is gay, meaning he "had to hide to stay alive" in a culture riddled with gangs and shaped by a standard of masculinity that has nothing to do with him. So threatening is his plight that he wagers his life to get here, accepting an existence of constant uncertainty and the ever-present threat of prosecution as the price for emotional and sexual freedom. "Maybe I'm finally being born," he muses hopefully. Another subplot, about a budding lesbian romance, underscores the difficulty of living outside the heterosexual norms of Catholic Latinx culture.

This is, however, a largely uplifting experience, thanks to the deeply felt songs, by Thomes and the composer Sinuhé Padilla, which flood the stage with an outpouring of feeling. The cast, all gifted singers, brings a vivid reality to characters who work intensely, under the most unforgiving conditions, to build stable lives, knowing that it can all vanish in an instant. To my mind, the strongest impressions are made by Andrés Quintero as Elvin, whose troubles with the law (revealed late in the action) are particularly heartbreaking, and Jen Anaya, who is positively radiant as Mariposa. But Carlo Albán's melancholy Rogelio is also compelling, as is Roberto Tolentino's stoic Johan. Silvia Dionicio and Frances Ines Rodriguez make an adorable pair of maybe-lovers, and Padilla and Tania Mesa supply much of the stirring music-making.

The director José Zayas' loving grasp of this material extends to the set design by Johnny Moreno, which sets the action against what appears to be hunks of the border wall; these serve as surfaces for projections of protest marches, the American flag, and indistinct human shapes. Lucrecia Briceno's lighting creates a warmly inviting atmosphere. Fabian Fidel Aguilar's costumes interestingly blend everyday casual wear with touches from the characters' places of origin. Marcelo Añez's sound design -- at least at the performance I attended -- seems to vary from actor to actor; some are heavily reinforced, others not at all, creating a sense of imbalance. This is an issue that can be easily worked out, especially as the production plays different venues.

Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes) never quite coalesces as drama, but it takes unerring aim at one's heart. It also stands as a devastating refutation of the current administration's disingenuous presentation of immigrants as criminals and miscreants. Indeed, they may be best part of us.

At the beginning of Where We Stand -- now at WP Theater, Donnetta Lavinia Grays is sitting in the audience. (At the performance, I attended, she was in the row directly behind me.) We only notice her because, waiting for the play to begin, she commences humming -- quietly at first, then louder by degrees. Suddenly she is in the aisle greeting members of the audience before taking the stage. And she addresses us as if she knows us and we know her. Already, one experiences a slight disconnect; what, exactly, is she talking about?

It's a question that will recur again and again. Where We Stand ostensibly unfolds at a town meeting -- where and when, I cannot say, for in this play all details have been left out. But here's a quick recap. The town was apparently a poor place, where amenities were non-existent and people struggled to get by. Then Grays' character, known only as Man, recalls her meeting with the Stranger, dressed in gold - known in the script as, yes, Stranger -- who offers seeds, a spade, and a scythe with the promise that if his name is attached to the town and its enterprises, extraordinary prosperity would surely follow, adding the proviso, "What the town is gonna see is a fabrication of their every wish." Of course, we never know the Stranger's name; that would be telling. But I think you can guess.

It's not until we're well into Where We Stand that this proposition is made and the good times, however illusory, start rolling. They seemingly take forever to get going, as the script, written by Grays, makes use of a peculiarly strenuous form of poetry, with rhymes that often end with a thud. Describing his encounter with the Stranger, the Man says, "Heading up toward the house, his walk was something silk woven/Navigating each turn with ease/While mine was burlap'd with ache and time/He opened my door like he had the keys." The Stranger announces, "The seed, the scythe and the spade don't just work on land/That is the power to change a people resting in your hand!" He adds, "My name should be written wherever you set up shop/Or stop/To heal the aching hearted/Remember this town's soul is mine...the moment you get started." I swear, the idea of blank verse never seemed so appealing.

If it hasn't occurred to you by now that this is a devil's bargain, you don't get to the theatre much; the references to the Pied Piper of Hamelin certainly provide a clue. But one of the biggest problems with Where We Stand is that anyone seeing it is several steps ahead of the Man and his fellow citizens about where all this is going. So complacent do they become with their new wealth that the agreement is abrogated, and the glitter suddenly vanishes; fingers are pointed at the Man, leading to an act of democracy involving the audience. The outcome -- which was notably lopsided at the performance I attended -- is not really in doubt. In any case, what are we voting on? The fate of an ill-defined character caught in a contrived situation lacking anything specific details? Not the most engaging proposition. The business of the audience deciding the fate of a fictional character -- which goes back at least to Ayn Rand's overheated courtroom drama The Night of January 16th -- never works unless it is employed as a kind of parlor game, as in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It seems particularly inappropriate here.

It's all meant to be a metaphor for something, I'm sure, but Grays' words don't resonate enough. Under Tamilla Woodard's direction, Grays works the room, getting the audience to sing, clap, and take part in call-and-response before calling the final vote, but her efforts are largely forced, much of them seemingly intended to pad out the evening. (David Ryan Smith is scheduled to play certain performances.) There's nothing much to say about the design; the stage is nearly bare and the house lights remain on throughout. Where We Stand is clearly meant to be a talking point; when it is over, the audience is invited onstage to continue the conversation. I can't say I noticed any takers. -- David Barbour

(12 February 2020)

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