Domestic Dreams: Boleros for the Disenchanted at Yale Repertory Theatre

By David Begelman

Jose Rivera has the distinction of being the first Puerto Rican author to be nominated for an Academy Award screenplay. The election was for The Motorcycle Diaries, a beautifully crafted 2004 film about the journey of Che Guevara and a friend, Alberto Granado, across South America in their youth. He has also authored Marisol and Cloud Tectonics, plays that made their debut on the island of his birth he left at the age of four.

According to Mr. Rivera, Puerto Rico has been called “The Enchanted Island,” although the playwright is the first to point out that the idea of enchantment has two meanings. It can signify a devotional aspect of love and excitement, or, conversely, a spell embracing false hopes and dreams. The latter experience is often the lot of islanders who come to America to realize the promise of another kind of future that quickly fades in the wake of disappointment.

An Infinite AcheGary Perez as Eusebio and Adriana Sevan as Flora in Act II of Yale Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of Boleros for the Disenchanted by José Rivera, directed by Henry Godinez.
Photo © Joan Marcus, 2008

A similar sentiment of disillusionment is also expressed in Anita’s ode to America in West Side Story: “Life can be bright in America/If you can fight in America/Life is all right in America/If you’re all white in America.” The pattern of bouncing back and forth between the island and the states as hopes for a better lot in life inevitably dwindle is registered in this most dazzling of Broadway musicals in another lament in the same song: “I think I go back to San Juan/ Everyone there will give big cheer/Everyone there will have moved here.”

Boleros for the Disenchanted concerns Puerto Rican family members whose lives are tracked across nearly a 40-year span. Its first act is set in the small town of Miraflores in 1953, whereas the second act opens in Daleville, Alabama in 1992, where transplanted family members have relocated from the island.

In the first act of the play, the parents of Flora (Sonia Tatoyan) anticipate the marriage of their daughter to her local boyfriend, Manuelo (Felix Solis). As chance would have it, Flora’s wedding date is set for two years hence, and she has stringent standards of sexual deportment until that time, while Manuelo has a case of raging hormones. She learns of his infidelities in the neighborhood, while he attempts to justify his behavior by declaring that “man is a creature of instinct,” and, being controlled by demonic forces, “must sin.” Flora, whose standard of love is “complete long-lasting fidelity,” will have none of it, and the relationship with Manuelo seems doomed.

Flora meets Eusebio (Joe Minoso), a local boy who has joined the National Guard, and who meets her through a friend of Flora’s, Petra (Lucia Brawley). The two are immediately attracted to one another even as Flora plays the coy virgin and Eusebio is given to such corny ploys as, “You’re words say one thing, but your eyes say something else.” Eusebio returns to Flora’s home to plead for her hand on a dependable knee, while Manuelo appears announcing that he has decided to change his philandering ways for purity out of love for Flora. It is not only too late for him, Flora’s father, Don Fermin (Gary Perez) chases Manuelo with a machete, whereupon the jilted suitor whips out a knife as the two pursue each other around the yard with blades flashing, Cavalleria Rusticana style. Flora’s mother, Dona Milla (Adriana Sevan), looks on in astonishment, her pieties about patience and restraint falling on deaf ears.

In the second act, the married couple, Flora (Adriana Sevan) and Eusebio (Gary Perez), have relocated to Alabama. Their lives have taken a turn for the worse, since Eusebio’s excessive drinking atop long-standing diabetes have led to amputations that keep him bedridden permanently. Flora tends to him lovingly, a largesse also illustrated in her becoming a church-sponsored counselor to young married couples like Monica (Lucia Brawley) and Oskar (Joe Minoso) Her faith in her disabled husband’s fidelity is momentarily shattered when he confesses to having more than one affair in the past. Yet even as she becomes unglued, her devotion is strong enough to cling to him through this crisis, not to mention a stroke limiting his power to communicate.

Bolero can’t quite convince that the foibles of its characters have anything to do with sociological plights in contrast to the ups and downs of a family’s history that would be the same wherever it unfolded. The hard edge of realities like unemployment and poverty are obliquely referenced, rather than affecting the dramatic action in a palpably immediate way. There are traces of ethnicity thrown in like machete wielding, allusions to witchcraft and love philtres, the ministrations of Catholic priests after presentiments of death, or relocating to America—just in case you make the mistake of thinking the goings on bore any resemblance to characters in, say, The Philadelphia Story (where the wealthy and waspish paterfamilias is also a philanderer without, it should be noted, making too much of it ).

The play is more than a tad distasteful in its stereotyping Puerto Rican men as drunken, machete wielding, and philandering suitors and husbands, as if such caricatures were sociological verities or else due to accidents of geography or happenstance. Nor is it quite believable that the play’s odes to enduring love and commitment are mirrored in real life quite so piously. The final tableau of Monica and Oskar walking off into the sunset, like much of the other overly sentimentalized versions of commitment in the play, smacks of soap opera.

The acting in Bolero for the Disenchanted ranges from good (Adrianna Sevan, Felix Solis, and Joe Minoso in Act I) to mediocre (Sona Tatoyan in Act I) to the overdrawn or farcical (Gary Perez’s drunken entrance in Act I). Double-casting led to some confusion, as actors were exchanged in differing roles across the time-span.

Director Henry Godinez handled the staging of Bolero capably, while composer Gustavo Leone and sound designer Veronika Vorel contributed beautifully to the musical score. Joe Appelt’s lighting creatively accentuated the tropical setting, especially in Act I.

Boleros for the Disenchanted had its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven, on April 25. It runs until May 17. Performances are at 8:00 PM with matinees on Saturdays at 2:00 PM. Tickets are $35 to $58, and can be purchased by calling the box office at (203)-432-1234 or online at yalerep.org.

This review is published in The Citizen News of New Fairfield, CT

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