There’s an old joke that asks, What is an Argentine? The answer: a depressed Cuban. This joke pokes fun at the supposedly outsized self-confidence among citizens of each nation, while suggesting that Cubans tend to be exuberant and Argentines melancholy.
The joke also suggests something of the challenge taken on this weekend by Teatro Avante, a largely Cuban company, in presenting a work by Argentine playwright Roberto Cossa, Años difíciles (Difficult Years).
Not surprisingly, the Cuban stars had a hard time with the typical Buenos Aires accent, which is as different from the popular Cuban accent as the bandoneon is from the conga. The play, Difficult Years, is also in a distinctly Argentine style known as the modern grotesque.
Playwright Cossa offers an unflattering portrayal of his countrymen, as two brothers retired from middle-class jobs on the railway, Federico (Gerardo Riverón) and Alberto (Julio Rodríguez), share a home. Unbeknownst to Federico, they also share his wife, Olga (Isabel Moreno). The three snipe at each other, making offhand remarks that reveal their anti-Semitism, racism, classism, and sexism.
Director Mario Ernesto Sánchez ably shifts the mood from an almost Chekovian realism to an increasingly absurd ending. Set and costume design duo Jorge Noa and Pedro Balmaseda capture the same blend of realism and surrealism with convincing costumes and props paired with an abstract set that looked like a wooden spiderweb. The only realistic aspect of the set was the doors, signaling the characters’ shut-in state.
The acting is uniformly engrossing and charismatic. But does it capture an Argentine reality? Maybe that’s not the point.
The action appears to be set in the mid-1990s, as the brothers comment on international news of the time. Despite the title, though, the mid-’90s were arguably among the least difficult years in Argentina over the past century — a lull between the hyperinflation of 1989 and the economic collapse of 1999-2000 and between a series of military dictatorships from 1930 to 1983 and the rise of violent crime over the past 15 years.
Yet for the Cuban cast, the ’90s were difficult years indeed. Riverón, Rodríguez and Moreno all left long careers in Havana during the so-called special period after the collapse of the Soviet Union ended support of the island’s economy.
Director Sánchez insisted during a forum after the performance that the production was not an adaptation, but a faithful presentation of Cossa’s play. Still this production in Miami raises a fascinating question: Does a play tell the story of the playwright, the theater company or the audience?
As Luis Martínez, who played the young Mauricio, observed in the forum, this story of one generation wreaking vengeance on another takes place in all countries. Considering the current state of intergenerational violence in his native Honduras, he may be referring to the most difficult years of all.