When you think of Communists, images of masterful sweet talkers and seducers don't come immediately to mind. And yet the most widely read Spanish-speaking poet of the 20th century--more famous and admired, many insist, than Federico Garcia Lorca--managed to inspire both party commitment and feverish woo-pitching.
On the political side, Pablo Neruda, who died of leukemia in 1973, was the best kind of ideologue--a man willing to criticize and even alter his own belief system when evidence of its consequences lay bleeding in front of him. Exiles, arrests and imprisonment were not alien to Neruda the Communist, but in 1956, when Kruschev revealed the scale of atrocities committed in Stalin's name, he remained a leftist in the sense of someone hyperaware of poverty's toll, especially in South America. Yet he also renounced the dictatorial brand of socialism that limited expression and prosperity in both Cuba and Russia, places where he'd read his work approvingly before citizens and authorities. Few people, especially fascists, were willing to make the distinction between a social progressive, "the poet of enslaved humanity," as one critic called him, and a socialist. The pinko label he attached to himself stuck fast after Augusto Pinochet seized control, and people were strong-armed into unmarked cars and never seen again. It's generally believed that harassment of the already gravely ill Neruda hastened his death.
There's a connection here to his status as an unparalleled spinner of romantic verse. Neruda's ability to make fine distinctions, to make the commonplace distinguished, was what secured him an international audience at the age of 20, when Veinte Poemas de Amor y Una Cancion Desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) was translated into multiple languages and readers worldwide discovered his ability to describe the quotidian--seafood chowder, a tailor's shop, the muddy landscape after a rain--in fantastical terms perfectly understandable to anyone in the throes of romance. In other words, Neruda's verse resembles in the mind's ear the silvery way things look when you're high on kisses and cuddles. Neruda sincerely believed Communism to be a way of protecting the lives of laborers and schoolteachers in his native Chile, to free them from economic hassles so they could experience life and its cycles with as much sensual enthusiasm as he wrote about them.
The overlapping ideological and romantic passions of Neruda are explored in the biographical comic drama Burning Patience, currently mounted by Teatro Dallas, but they manage to be somewhat disjointed in Marion Peter Holt's translation of Antonio Skarmeta's script. A novel with the same title by the prolific Chilean scribe Skarmeta was used as the source material for the 1995 art-house smash Il Postino, although director-screenwriter Michael Radford seriously soft-pedaled Neruda the poet as a threat to both Spain and his homeland in favor of a sentimentalized account of his Cyrano services for a postman deeply in love. Under director Cora Cardona, Teatro's version moves smoothly and appealingly down two separate tracks--Neruda the old man (played by Barry Dale) at the end of a rabble-rousing life, protected by the soon-to-be-assassinated Salvador Allende, and Neruda as muse and encourager of Mario Jimenez (Eliud Castillo), the civil servant and silently smoldering admirer of Beatriz (Helena Hurst), the flirtatious daughter of the imperious bar owner Rosa (Christie Vela, nudged here into uncharacteristically shrill moments of delivery). Unfortunately, when the lovers' tale resolves abruptly, the saga of a reflective radical kicks in hard, and we feel a little whiplash from the shift.
Teatro Dallas has landed on the main stage of the Kalita Humphreys Theater for its latest itinerant tour of the city's spaces. Set designer Nick Brethauer and light man Jeff Hurst have created a solemnly lit, handsome two-sided stage--Rosa's sign-festooned pub and Neruda's library full of books and gewgaws--that blends nicely with memories of more opulent stagings by the Dallas Theater Center. Despite Cardona's typically expert mastery of rhythm and tone, part of me desired more fire, more music, more blood, more of the flamboyance with which the famed poet infused simple objects of home and job. Burning Patience has an essential sweetness. Castillo as the restless mailman Mario, hounding Pablo to distraction about the fine points of seduction as the poet ponders the Nobel Prize, an ambassadorship to France and the growing right-wing threat in Chile, sees to this with a performance of fired-up gestures and ingratiating earnestness. The wordless dance between him and Hurst as Beatriz, who smears her arms with an orange half while she gyrates and offers him a taste, is what I wanted more of. In the show's lesser moments, a trivializing politeness takes over, a humility that's perhaps intended to reflect the quiet lives of the Chilean workers who surround Neruda. Some of this can be laid at the feet of Dale as the writer, who's an ace when it comes to expressing bemusement and gentle frustration but lacks the dramatic heft to portray Don Pablo as a cultural thinker, a movement leader, not to mention a man terrified of the brutal regime that's beginning to root out all ideological dissent around him. Neruda was a lover of things small and domestic, of course, but Teatro Dallas' Burning Patience takes that too literally, as a stylistic end rather than a point of departure. What's lacking here are the operatic vibrations that the poet captured emanating from life's daily bric-a-brac.
The whole time I was watching Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling, the latest mini-production from the Undermain Theatre that started in Austin and is about to travel to New York, the voices and faces of the great female-male partnerships of country music--Loretta and Conway, Tammy and George, Dolly and Porter--floated through my head. Part of it, of course, was the fact that the co-writers and co-stars of this hillbilly operetta, Ruth Margraff and Nick Brisco, hoisted accordions and acoustic guitars and resembled a pair of honky-tonk veterans caught in a psychedelic snafu. With her square face, high cheekbones and unruly mane of red curls, Margraff was a fusion of Naomi Judd and Exene Cervenka, while Brisco's heavily lidded eyes and shoe polish-black hair suggested Chris Isaak on the tail end of a bender. But more than that, these collaborators found an impressively subdued give-and-take of very poeticized lyrics that alternated just like duets, appropriate to the history of a woman-as-property who falls in love and is betrayed by her captor.
Judges is the seventh chapter of the Bible, and the wanton acts of violence it depicts are often cited as evidence of why the first central Israeli authority was necessary--up to that point, everybody followed his own need for survival and vengeance. Moving among four microphones set up in the Undermain's basement space, Margraff plays the Concubine and Brisco the Levite (both in belt buckles and cowboy boots, as the tale has been transferred to Appalachia). She runs away to her coal miner father's home, is pursued and convinced to return to her owner's hearth, and both are besieged by a tribe of enraged and aroused men hell-bent on the rape of the Levite. Guess who gets tossed their way instead. Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling is performed almost entirely as a series of ballads whose instrumental simplicity contrasts with its ornate lyrical intensity. Brisco, the veteran Dallas music scenester, has a more conventional country-rock background and voice. Margraff isn't exactly a singer, but she speaks in a breathy, singsong half-chant that's mesmerizing for the play's brief duration.
Though Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling clocks in at less than an hour, the thickly textured imagery and wordplay that Margraff and Brisco impart possesses enough frissons for a full novel written in verse. Full disclosure: The instant I paused to savor something spoken or sung, I realized I'd missed what had transpired since. There are worse kinds of dissatisfaction, but truthfully, I'm not sure many people will get the full experience of the show from just one visit. I don't mean to caution anyone away from this crudely but potently hewn piece of rural American mythology. Just be prepared to keep pace at a brisk mental jog as Margraff and Brisco spin their densely symbolic biblical variation with steely concentration.
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