During his lifetime, Cuban playwright Virgilio Piñera was lionized and ostracized. Stylistically adventurous, a modernist groundbreaker whose controversial Electra Garrigó preceded Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist The Bald Soprano by two years, the prolific Piñera was one of the world’s great writers, a novelist, poet, essayist and short story writer as well as a dramatist.
Yet though he spent most of his life in a homeland just 90 miles from the United States, Piñera isn’t as familiar to American audiences as he should be. Absurd Celebration: The First International Festival of Virgilio Piñera’s Theatre aims to remedy that by shining a powerful spotlight on Piñera and his eclectic work for the stage.
The kickoff event for a year-long celebration of the humanities and arts at the University of Miami, Absurd Celebration is the collaborative effort of the Department of Theatre Arts and Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, and the not-for-profit arts group FUNDarte. Opening at 8 p.m. Friday with a production of Piñera’s masterful Aire frío ( Cold Air) by the Havana-based Argos Teatro, the festival will run more than a month, showcasing two Cuban productions — one by Cubans living in Spain, one by Miami-based artists — and a pair of one-acts performed by University of Miami students.
South Florida’s celebration follows a June conference in Cuba, which has declared 2012 El Año Virgiliano in recognition of the 100th anniversary of Piñera’s birth. Lillian Manzor, an associate professor in UM’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, and Henry Fonte, chair of the university’s Department of Theatre Arts, have been working on the festival for the better part of a year.
“I said, ‘We need to do something in Miami,’ ” Manzor recalls. “We wanted to triangulate the Cuba issue, with artists from Cuba, the Cuban diaspora and Miami.”
‘A huge shift’
Fonte, who has pushed for more multicultural theater since coming to UM two years ago, feels that the festival is challenging and important.
“We’re opening a show every Friday,” he says. “We’re trying to attract the Hispanic community to the Ring. This is a huge shift. We’re doing plays in both English and Spanish, all with supertitles. It’s a full, five-play, bicultural festival.”
Fonte and Manzor note that the festival lineup showcases Piñera’s stylistic range. Argos Teatro and director Carlos Celdrán are making their U.S. debut with the realistic saga of a family’s struggles and dreams, Aire frío (Friday-Aug. 19). Spain’s Mephisto Teatro is bringing director Liuba Cid’s adaptation of the avant-garde Electra Garrigó, rechristened El juego de Electra (Electra’s Game) and incorporating elements of Piñera, Sophocles and Euripides (Aug. 24-26). Says Cid of her reinterpretation, “I took Virgilio’s Electra Garrigó as a piece of coal that one has to light up.”
Havana’s Teatro de la Luna, acclaimed in Miami for its Delirio Habanero at Miami-Dade County Auditorium last fall, returns with Los siervos (The Serfs), director Raúl Martín’s adaptation of Piñera’s anti-Stalinist farce (Aug. 31-Sept. 2). Miami’s Mudras Project will present director Eloy Ganuza’s version of Una caja de zapatos vacía (An Empty Shoebox), Piñera’s excursion into the theater of cruelty (Sept. 7-9). Then Fonte will direct UM students in a pair of absurdist one-acts, You Always Forget Something and False Alarm, plays that will wind up the festival and kick off the regular Ring Theatre season (Sept. 14-22). The four full-length productions will be in Spanish with English subtitles, the student one-acts in English with Spanish surtitles.