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.
The man whose work led to the festival was born Virgilio Domingo Piñera Llera in Cárdenas, Cuba, on Aug. 4, 1912. Educated at Havana University, he began writing as a student. Influenced by world literature, the deeply Cuban writer broke with his country’s old-fashioned theater for drama that was more experimental, absurdist and challenging. He lived in Argentina from 1946 to 1958, returning to Cuba with great hopes after the revolution, and for a few years, he was produced and published.
Then Fidel Castro had a famous meeting with the country’s intellectuals, proclaiming, “Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing.” Piñera stood up and said, “I am afraid. I am very afraid.” After that he, like so many gay men, was persecuted. His work was no longer published at home. Younger artists were forbidden to associate with him. He spent his last years writing and working in a factory, dying of a heart attack in 1979.
Manzor sees lots of Cuban theater and knows that much has changed regarding Piñera’s artistic legacy in his homeland. He is an honored, respected, much-produced playwright. As in other countries where the free expression of ideas is restricted, Havana’s theater artists know how to use metaphor and other techniques to communicate with their audiences.
“The kind of questioning presented onstage in theater in Cuba you don’t see in any other part of society,” she says. “It’s not agitprop. But in artistic and subtle ways, they address issues important to society.”
Celdrán of Argos Teatro is excited and nervous about his company’s Miami debut. Half of his family lives here, and most have never seen the impressive, actor-centered work that has won him so many fans in Cuba and elsewhere.
“We took the play out of its original context. We present it as timeless — it could be in the ‘90s or now or in the ‘50s,” Celdrán says through translator Manolo Garriga, his company’s producer.
Celdrán believes that working in Cuba is easier now and says he has never faced direct censorship. Still, he admits that he’s always anxious about how his productions will be received.
“I never know the way my work is going to be read. You’re working in deep waters. Then, as you’re coming up, you never know if you’re going to make it to the surface,” he says. “On the other hand, in those deep waters where I want to work, I feel free.”
Farce and mockery
Martín of Teatro de la Luna has also done some transformational work on the play his company is presenting, Los siervos. The script wasn’t published in Cuba, but a critic there pointed him to a version of it in the literary magazine Ciclón, a journal that Piñera co-founded in 1955. He was totally fascinated, he says through translator Manzor, with this great “farce and mockery of Stalinism.”
The company first staged Los siervos in 1999, and Martín was concerned enough about its overt criticism of the Stalinist system that he changed the setting from the former Soviet Union to an unnamed country, and altered the Russian character names.
“At the time, that helped us. It made the play more metaphoric, more universal. Now, the situation has changed, as Russia has changed and Cuba has changed. I had the freedom to go back to Virgilio’s play or do my version,” he says.
Like Celdrán, Martín is a great admirer of Piñera’s work.
“He had such a profound vision of the reality of Cuba and Cubans. He was a great man of letters, but also a joker with a deep cutting edge. He played with reality in a masterful way — and he wrote theater with a capital ‘T,’ ” Martín observes. “He created incredible, big characters with ingenious dialogue and clever humor, and great dramatic situations. His work was meant to be staged.”