¡Ay, Carmela! had its US premier on Saturday, September 17, 2011, at GALA Hispanic Theatre. The show envelopes the audience with the fury and torments of the Spanish Civil War, set against a bullet riddled red brick wall. Amid the vulgarities and horror of war we meet a delightful but discombobulated and ‘not too talented’ husband and wife team who are touring Spain.
The two veteran performers, who never seem to have an original approach to their musical comedy act, find themselves filled with original ideas in the last place one would imagine – a performance for General Franco, his troops and the soon-to-be murdered prisoners of war. As the journey unfolds, we are led on a back-in-time journey through the misadventures of this beleaguered couple. We know how it ends – Carmela dies – but we don’t know what leads to her death.
When the play begins Carmela (Mona Martinez) visits Paulino (Diego Mariani) from ‘the beyond.’ She tells us that the afterlife is filled with the same delays and disappointments we experience in this life. Saints cannot be relied upon to do what we prayed to them to do, traveling from death back to life requires more and more energy each time it’s attempted, and food – over there – has no taste. It’s one of the best reasons I’ve heard to stay alive!
During their last stage performance, Carmela takes justice and morality to task by seizing the Republican flag and wrapping herself in the flag with fervor. She begins singing a song of solidarity, which supports the imprisoned soldiers. Paulino with a simpatico heart, oozes with apologetic gestures and does all within his power to loosen the grip Carmela has on him, including her revised performance when he mistakenly reads from a grocery list instead of a handwritten script.
The flirtatious partners shower the audience with their love for each other, theater, and country. They lavish mediocrity on splotches of torn costumes, a clothing rack and a trunk with has-been-jokes used too many times. They dance the Flamenco and bare their insecurities and misgivings. They manage to heel-tap their way into an awareness that something meaningful must come of their efforts before their last performance.
Mona Martinez’s Carmela is a fire on the stage – hurling critiques of man’s inhumanity to man. She voices sentiments on everything from her husband’s lack of abilities to how the war should be won. It’s a remarkable performance and shows the depth of courage an actor must have to be an impetus for change.
Diego Mariani is at home in his role. His conversation with the audience gives warmth and pathos to his role. He is totally believable and like a great Flamenco dancer, he makes a wonderful partner for Martinez’s Carmela.
Director José Luis Arellano García says that ¡Ay, Carmela! reflects a childhood memory that influenced him to enter the theater. Interestingly, it was a similar piece The Chocolate Soldier, that caught my imagination when he was a child and influenced my love and participation for and in the theatre. García has come full circle with his excellent direction of ¡Ay, Carmela!.
In a letter read to the audience at the close of the show, Playwright José Sanchis Sinisterra expressed his heartfelt thanks and gratitude to Gala for producing his play for the first time in the United States. It was a wonderful moment.
Sound Designer Antonio Serrano does a fine job in his first GALA production. Every sound is crisp and clear. Set Designer Giorgos Tsappas shows us the excitement and hardships of taking a show on the road by placing a trunk center stage – and placing two chairs on opposite sides of the stage. The chairs help the audience know that in every good partnership, one must make time to sit and listen to their individual thoughts before sharing them with each other.
Costume Designer Rosa Garcia Andujar gives just the right look to the provincial suit, worn by Paulino. One glance and the audience knows that it has been worn over and over again. It has the look of been pulled in and out of a traveling trunk one time too many times. Carmela’s Flamenco dress, filled with additional layers from many seasons of travel – does more than show the hardships of road tours. In shades of red it is designed to expose the back of an unflattering bra. The audience senses the malaise the couple has fallen into and sympathizes with their attempts to keep one foot in front of the other, barely keeping their show on the road. Such is the gift of a talented costumer.
With strength, wit, charm, and a persevering message of hope, ¡Ay, Carmela! will steal your heart. Paulino and Carmela’s zesty and wildly engaging performances will make you want to come back to GALA for more! Bravo!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours.
¡Ay, Carmela! plays through October 9th at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office (202) 234-7174, or purchase them online.