Christine Dolen

Miami’s XXIX International Hispanic Theatre Festival puts Argentina in the spotlight

The world of theater keeps Mario Ernesto Sánchez busy all year. He chooses and directs a production for Teatro Avante, the Miami theater company he founded 35 years ago. He takes Avante’s productions to festivals in Latin America and Europe. Sometimes, he books the odd acting job in film or television.

But mostly, from the time each edition of the International Hispanic Theatre Festival closes, he’s working on the next one.

This year’s festival, a tribute to the theater of Argentina, opens at 8:30 p.m. Thursday with Calígula, the Musical, a show about the struggle against murderous power. Written by Pepe Cibrián Campoy and Ángel Mahler of the Cibrián Mahler Company, it’s one of three Argentine productions coming to the XXIX International Hispanic Theatre Festival. The others are from Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Chile and the United States, 14 shows in all through July 27.

Among this year’s highlights, says Sánchez, are Calígula and Bromas y lamentos (Jokes and Laments), described as “a dialogue between early Baroque music and avant-garde theatrical ideas.” The latter is being done by Buenos Aires’ Teatro Musical Contemporáneo in collaboration with Florida Grand Opera in the lobby of the Miami-Dade County Auditorium.

“We have never presented a musical before,” Sánchez says. “And the other one is like a mini opera.”

As usual, Sánchez has faced myriad challenges — some predictable, some not — in putting together this year’s festival. He lost a key American Airlines sponsorship after the company’s merger with US Airways, so he had to scramble for other ways to get artists to Miami (the Mexican and Spanish governments helped) and cut back on other expenses. This year, he has something over $400,000 in funding and in-kind services to make the festival happen.

“We need to program the festival before I know how much money I have to work with,” he says. “I have to dive into the pool and then find out if I know how to swim.”

Joann María Yarrow, director of the Miami Dade College-based Teatro Prometeo and its Spanish-language conservatory program, is staging La conducta de la vida (The Conduct of Life) by María Irene Fornés. What Sánchez, with his unflagging passion, and the festival contribute to theater in Miami is invaluable, she says.

“This festival has brought a high-quality international theater festival to Miami, and Miami is recognized for bringing it here. … This is Latin American theater and theater from Spain, where they still do stuff that’s risky, where theater isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity,” Yarrow says. “And because it has an educational component, we are blessed to have all these academics come and write about our work.”

As for Sánchez, she says, “Success isn’t having your name up in lights. Success is being able to do this for the rest of your life, even with so many obstacles in the way. When you have that passion and the belief that your city and community are worth it, eventually it gets bigger and bigger.”

This year’s sizable lineup features a wide variety of theater plus a day-long children’s festival, a two-day conference on trends in Latino and Latin American performing arts, a pair of staged readings, and presentation of the 2014 Life Achievement Award to Eduardo “Tato” Pavlovsky, an Argentine playwright, actor and psychoanalyst. Though every show but one is performed in Spanish, three shows have supertitles: Prometeo’s La conducta de la vida and Teatro Avante’s Años difíciles (Difficult Years) by Roberto Cossa are in Spanish with English supertitles, while Dinossauros (Dinosaurs) from Brazil’s Teatro Cena is in Portuguese with Spanish supertitles. The family-friendly Guyi Guyi from Spain’s Periferia Teatro is a bilingual show.

The subjects of the festival’s plays are as varied as the styles of its productions. Some are escapist, others absurdist, still others chilling in their timeliness, even if they were written several decades ago.

Playwright Juan Carlos Rubio and director Ignacio García are collaborating on Arizona, a production from Mexico’s Teatro de Babel. The play is about an American couple who patrol the Arizona desert trying to prevent migrants from entering the United States; as Rubio describes Arizona in an email, “It’s about intolerance, violence and fear of the unknown.” Yet the sobering elements of the story are blended with references to musical comedy, so that the piece becomes “like a pocket musical,” director García says.

In Argentine writer-director Nelson Valente’s El loco y la camisa (The Madman and the Shirt), a suburban Buenos Aires family tries to keep one of its members with a penchant for blurting out the truth hidden away. Developed from a short comic sketch, the play is part of what Valente sees as a new wave of Argentine theater that followed the country’s 2000 economic crisis.

“After decades when the value was placed on consumption and money, people who didn’t have it any longer started looking inside,” Valente observes. “This gave way to a rebirth of a great theatrical tradition that was declining in our country.”

The economic crisis in Spain has also had an effect on theater there, says director Pepe Bablé, whose production of Abel González Melo’s Cádiz en mi corazón (Cádiz in My Heart) is headed to the festival.

“The economic crisis that we are undergoing affects the ‘making’ part of the work, but on the social side something curious is happening: People go to the theater more than before. I think this is due to people wanting to find answers to so many things in this moment of change we are living in,” Bablé comments.

As for Calígula — which may strike some as an unusual subject for a musical — Cibrián Campoy saw parallels in Argentina’s Dirty War and bloody dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983.

“I wrote my own version of a man whose only desire was to be god. As emperor, the world acclaimed him as such, but what he needed them to do is to ‘believe’ it. … This is the paradox of omnipotent power: not being able to destroy our capacity for thinking, imagining, being free. Because of this, though, they torture and kill,” he says.

Cibrián Campoy wrote Calígula during that terrible period in Argentina and opened it at the beginning of 1983 — a risk, certainly.

“Because it is a musical, probably in their blindness they thought it was feathers and stars,” he says. “I am not a revolutionary. I am a man who fights for his ideals. Calígula is one. Unfortunately, this never passes away: Power is power.”

Yarrow’s choice of Fornés’ 1983 work La conducta de la vida aligns with her interest in doing theater that provokes, entertains and educates. She notes that the play, about a power-obsessed military man and the beautiful wife whose quest for an education threatens him, represents the larger world — a world filled with abuses of human rights, women’s rights and children’s rights.

“This takes place in an unnamed country, but each group of actors sees it as their country: Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia,” Yarrow says. “All of a sudden, these metaphorical characters are alive right now.”

Neher Jacqueline Briceño of Miami is doing triple duty as the author, director and co-star of Federico ... ¡Ay Clavel!, a play that imagines the last moments in the life of Federico García Lorca. Jorge Hernández plays the doomed poet-playwright, and Adriana Barraza, the Mexican actress who was Oscar-nominated in 2006 for her performance in Babel, plays opposite Briceño as two women who prove to be aspects of Lorca.

Being part of the festival, Briceño says, “has always had great meaning for me, not only for being involved with it for so many years but for the value that the theater scene gains in Miami during an entire month, and what we are able to project to the world about our city.”

As Sánchez gets ready for the start of his 29th festival (the 30th, he says, will pay tribute to the theater of Brazil), he’s rehearsing Teatro Avante’s festival-closing production of Años difíciles (Difficult Years) by Argentine playwright Roberto Cossa and preparing to be as omnipresent as possible at openings and events.

He admits, laughing, that “I’m still excited. I’m ashamed to tell you that I am. People around me don’t understand, but I really don’t see myself doing anything else.”

He notes that his mother, Zulima, is now 101 years old and proud of his accomplishments. Though nearly blind, she asked him to be sure to bring her copies of the annual festival posters. But for many years she was of the opinion that her son should have gone into business, engineering or medicine.

“I always told her, ‘Do you want a rich unhappy son or a happy poor son?’ ” Sánchez says.

He chose the latter, and Spanish-language theater in South Florida (if not Sánchez himself) is the richer for it.