In the Cards

With all the recent images of angry protesters and long bank lines, one would never know that the bustling boulevards of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, Argentina, play host to bookstores and cafes that have served as havens for artists and intellectuals since the 1920s.

Decades ago, a generation of transplanted Spanish booksellers, many refugees from Spain's 1936-1939 Civil War, built a publishing industry in Argentina that by the 1960s dominated the Spanish-speaking world, producing such literary giants as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar. The country's agriculture-based economic success created a successful educational system and a thriving literary and performing arts scene. And although dictator Juan Peron was no saint, his 1946-1955 populist policies fostered a comfortable and educated working class.

This is the Argentina Dallas-Fort Worth's El Centro Argentina, a social and cultural group made up of about 150 North Texans of mostly Argentine descent, is making an effort to expose the greater public to this weekend. Saturday and Sunday El Centro Argentina's all-volunteer theater group performs its sixth Argentine play since the group's 1996 inception.

Roberto Cossa's Tute Cabrero is named after a card game in South America won by forming alliances with as well as deceiving other players. Three characters begin playing their own figurative version of tute cabrero when their employer notifies them of a pending layoff. They fight and connive to avoid being the drama's loser, the odd man, or woman, left out of a job.

Although the play's plot is pretty universal, the manner in which it's presented is very Argentine, says theater group director Beatriz Mariel. "It could be presented anywhere in the world, but the speech and vocabulary are very Argentine," she says.

As with previous productions, El Centro Argentina includes a glossary in the Tute Cabrero program of Argentine words and expressions used in the play, which is performed in Spanish.

Argentina's strong literary tradition has suffered greatly over the past 35 years. As in the case of many countries around the world, competition from computers, television and other media cuts into books' popularity. But vicious cycles of economic crisis and political repression haven't helped either. A violent and repressive military junta and the "dirty war" against leftist guerrillas in the mid-1970s devastated cultural life. The country's leaders persecuted artists perceived as empathizing with the country's left and/or seen as critical of the government. Many a writer went into exile. Self-censorship was the only viable option for those who wished to remain in their country and continue working. Many of these writers, including Cossa, one of Argentina's most successful playwrights, turned away from more realistic drama to a much more indirect humor as a form of self-defense.

Mariel, who came to the United States with her husband prior to Argentina's more tumultuous times, notes that Cossa's political leanings had nothing to do with her selection of his play for her group's production. "We don't do works by him because he's a leftist. The human conflict is what we're interested in."

Tute Cabrero is interesting because although it was first staged in 1981 and the drama is set in the 1980s, Cossa actually wrote the piece as a television screenplay in 1967. As a result, Tute Cabrero is atypical of most 1970s and early 1980s Argentine theater in that it's more of a straightforward drama than many later absurdly humorous popular Argentine works.

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Cheryl Smith