Thursday, May 14, 2009

All In The Family

Family is an extremely important concept in our society. Whether one defines family by blood lines, by the adoptive component which creates a person's extended family (both personal and professional) -- or by the "instant family" created in situations like summer camps, cruises, and other gatherings -- the bonds that develop are tested, strained, broken, and often renewed over long periods of time.

The same can be said for the concept of an artistic family: a group of creative people who enjoy working with each other, feel they sometimes do their best work when going through the creative process together, and look for new projects that can reunite them in a professional setting. This type of artistic family is often recreated in the opera world as productions created and/or designed by a particular team of creative artists are restaged in opera houses around the world. Sometimes a composer will team up with a stage director (Stephen Sondheim & Harold Prince, John Adams & Peter Sellars). Sometimes screen actors will team up for a series of movies (Katherine Hepburn & Spencer Tracy, Kate Winslet & Leonardo DiCaprio) to which they bring a unique personal chemistry or the marketing potential of powerful box office numbers (Billy Crystal & Robert DeNiro).

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When Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron's 2001 movie Y Tu Mama Tambien scored strongly at film festivals and at the box office, its two young male leads quickly shot to international stardom. Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna return to the screen as two brothers in Rudo y Cursi, first seen at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival and opening this weekend in local theaters. 

This charming film, which reunites the actors with Carlos Cuaron (who wrote the scripts for both Y Tu Mama Tambien and Rudo y Cursi), also features Cuaron as director. Much of the production became a family affair, with the two Cuaron brothers present as well as other long-time friends, including co-producer Guillermo del Toro.  As Alfonso Cuaron notes: "To work with Diego and Gael is to save about 25 years of rehearsals because they have known each other for 25 years and they can communicate almost by telepathy."

That peculiar shared second sense comes in handy when a film is about two brothers who have been rivals for their mother's attention since birth. In so many ways, the natural chemistry between the two actors takes on added dimension because each has been asked to play against type. As Carlos Cuaron notes:
"Originally I had conceived Rudo y Cursi (Tough and Corny) as a mockumentary about Tato, a player from humble origins that attains glory within professional soccer but disappears mysteriously and becomes a legend. When I told Diego and Gael the story, they both wanted to play Tato --  which was really cool.  The problem was that there was only one character. That is when I realized that I wanted to work with both of them together again and I had to grow the story to two characters. The first thing that came to my mind was the image of two soccer players solving an intimate drama right before shooting a penalty in front of a full stadium. Then I thought, why not make them siblings? And I started constructing the story backwards."
Cauron's film begins with the two brothers working on a banana plantation.  Obsessed with soccer, they are spotted by an athletic talent scout (Guillermo Franchella), who first signs Cursi (Bernal) for one of Mexico's national teams. Cursi happens to be a really good futbol player whose greatest goal is to earn his living as a singer. His hotheaded brother Rudo is a stubborn, egotistical fool with a weakness for gambling -- who also just happens to be a damned good goalie.

As Cursi becomes more successful (and is showered with lavish bonuses by his agent), Rudo is hired to play for one of the teams in Mexico's secondary league. Cuaron's film neatly frames the rise and fall of two goofballs ill-equipped to handle sudden fame, its trappings, and their inability to handle money responsibly. What shines throughout Rudo y Cursi is a red-hot passion -- not just for soccer, but for each other as brothers.

There are some who might complain that Rudo y Cursi is not your typical sports film. The payoff for the audience is less about watching any one particular team clinch a championship (the big game ends in a tie with dire personal consequences for the two brothers) than it is about watching two easily corrupted country bumpkins succumb to temptation but eventually land on their feet. 

These are two very flawed heros, pained by their imperfections, who get chewed up and spat out by a huge athletic publicity machine and have all of their sudden wealth taken away from them. Yet the film's ending has a sweetness that allows corruption to retain its place in Mexican society while the two men find ways to enjoy the simpler pleasures of life. Here's the trailer:

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Within families, certain situations recur from generation to generation. A common refrain heard around the world is "I only hope I live long enough to watch your children do to you what you're doing to me!" Thus, it was touching but not all that surprising to sense the presence of numerous theatrical ghosts hovering above the stage during the opening night performance of the American Conservatory Theater's new production of Boleros for the Disenchanted.

Religious shame, fear of what the neighbors will say, and mothers warning their daughters not to rush into marriage are universal themes. As one basks in the warmth and tenderness of Jose Rivera's new play, and smiles at the gentle bickering between family members, it's uncanny to think of how many times these situations have played out on stages around the world. And yet, in the rhythm and music of Rivera's characters -- and particularly the inflections of their speech --  one can easily hear Tevye and Golde bickering with each other and even see some of Neil Simon's odder couples trading barbs. More than anything, the first act of Boleros for the Disenchanted gives one the eerie sense of witnessing the back story for the contingent of Puerto Ricans who would later appear in West Side Story. 

Rivera's play unfolds in an unfamiliar time and place: the Puerto Rico of the early 1950s.  A mother desperately tries to warn her young (and infatuated) daughter about the realities of living with a man, but her daughter will hear none of it.  The young woman's drunk and angry father (who is constantly threatening to use his machete to castrate any man who would disrespect his daughter), is quick to embarrass himself and his family. When, after breaking off her engagement to a man with a roving eye, young Flora travels from the small town of Miraflores to Santurce to spend a month with her cousin Petra, a handsome and honest soldier in the National Guard captures her heart. 

Lela Loren and Drew Cortese (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

One of her parents' greatest disappointments is that they have lost contact their son, Efrain, who moved to the United States as soon as he could leave home. No sooner have Flora and Eusebio been married than they announce similar plans to move to America. "A lot of plays deal with the post-migration experience in the United States and what that did to Puerto Ricans who lived here: the promise of the New World, the myth of America, and what people did to provide for their families," notes the playwright.  "Act II is the crushing reality of what that myth ended up becoming. It is a migration story."

Indeed, Act II takes place some 39 years later. After giving birth to multiple children (who have scattered to cities around the globe), Flora and Eusebio are now living in a run-down apartment in Alabama close to the Army base where one of their children is stationed. Having lost both legs to the ravages of diabetes, Eusebio is confined to a hospital bed. Flora is trapped in the role of caretaker. Their children and grandchildren have never really known the beauty of Puerto Rico.

Rachel Ticotin and Robert Beltran (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What makes Boleros for the Disenchanted so appealing is much more than Rivera's comic writing, the family pathos, or the strength of A.C.T.'s acting ensemble. This is a drama about continuity -- of family, of marriage ideals, of love -- and, most importantly, of great personal devotion. The characters in Rivera's play are common people with deep and abiding love in their hearts.  The love that burns within them has a lot less to do with the flames of infatuation than the kind of slow and resolute passion that stays warmed by the heat of glowing embers.

Many plays have been written which chronicle a couple's trials  and failures over a long arc of time. In some plays, like Jan DeHartog's The Fourposter, two actors play a married couple that ages throughout the evening as their marriage evolves from their wedding day until their senior years. In others, such as Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's celebrated musical, Sunday In The Park With George, key actors may play members of the same family from different generations.

In Rivera's play, the actress who starts off as Flora's mother, Donna Milla (Rachel Ticotin), gets to portray the much older Flora in Act II. The actor who played Flora's father, Don Fermin (Robert Beltran), gets to play Flora's aging, disabled husband, Eusebio. Act I's Young Eusebio (Drew Cortese) is transformed into a local priest in Act II, while the first act's young Flora (Lela Loren) becomes Eve, a healthcare worker who helps Flora take care of the dying Eusebio. The woman portraying Flora's cousin Petra (Michele Vazquez) -- who kept urging Flora to embrace life back in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1952 -- reappears as a young Army wife being counseled by the older Flora against impetuously rushing into marriage.

Michele Vazquez and Dion Mucciacito (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While the atmosphere is greatly enhanced by Nancy Schertler's lighting and Carey Perloff's gentle guidance, it is the sense of continuity --  of a "circle of life -- that provides the play's dramatic underpinning. Boleros for the Disenchanted delivers a solid vehicle for an ensemble of six actors who receive wonderful opportunities to shine. It is a touching, poignant, and somewhat old-fashioned play crafted with great love (and much insight into the challenges to maintaining one's love). In addition to to the standard trials faced by any couple in a long-term relationship, Rivera's play confronts such burning issues as infidelity, forgiveness, assisted suicide, and shattered dreams while providing a warm, richly satisfying evening of theatre. 

That's much easier said than done.

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