Lost in the translation

I must say that A Rose By Any Other Name, the 1997 season opener for Teatro Dallas, surprised me at regular intervals throughout its 90 minutes without intermission. There were enough changes in tone and texture--not to mention a rich performance by one of its stars that didn't begin to ripen until the third scene--that I offered enthusiastic applause at curtain call. I wouldn't have predicted this from the first part of the show.

The pleasures in A Rose By Any Other Name are numerous but minor--so minor, in fact, that you'll remember laughing less than you actually did. The play's central theme--sexual revenge--is timeless enough, but it's staged in the context of an overexposed if widely misreported world conflict--the war between the sexes. The fallout from the war over what was known as political correctness is a certain healthy egalitarianism practiced by American men and women when judging interactions between the sexes. In other words, women no longer automatically side with women, and men feel freer to criticize some of what has previously been accepted as regular guyness.

While hardly universal, this complexity of perspective, should anyone happen to bring it along with them to Teatro's latest, fades the chintzy conceits of this angry chick-bonding comedy by celebrated Mexican playwright Emilio Carbadillo. A Rose By Any Other Name emits a stale scent. Two very different women discover they've unknowingly fathered children by the same man, and the friendship that evolves from mutual obsession with the gentleman nourishes itself, in the end, on a desire to make him suffer. Strictly speaking, the two ladies don't perform a vengeful act--they toy with the idea of letting him stay in jail, where he's landed with a statutory rape charge after an unfortunate encounter with one of his students.

A Rose By Any Other Name was translated from Spanish by an eminently respected writer named Margaret Sayers Peden. Simply by being among the first to offer Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Isabel Allende to monolingual Americans, Peden wields an influence that directly shapes English-speaking perception of some of the great Latino writers of the late twentieth century.

Consider, for example, the play's original title--Una Rosa de Dos Aromas. Literally translated, this means A Rose of Two Aromas. You can argue how small or large is the thematic jump from this expression to the Shakespearean snippet A Rose By Any Other Name, but the translator has put an Anglo spin on the material courtesy of the most tirelessly sampled, the whitest of Dead White Male Authors. Language out of cultural context is too often about as exciting as a rare mammal stuffed and mounted at a natural history museum. You might not have ever seen the critter before, and you might get a small thrill from its inanimate presence, but you know it doesn't approach the fascination and urgency this animal would inspire if you encountered it without the home field advantage.

America isn't sexually superior to Mexico, but I'd guess that gender conflicts manifest themselves differently in each country. Carbadillo's success and critical respect in his own land suggest the women there are chafing against a sense of sexual bondage that's commonly trivialized as co-dependent behavior on TV talk shows in the U.S. Mind you, of course, A Rose By Any Other Name is a Latino male translated through an Anglo writer's version of the personal demons that molest contemporary Mexican women. Slapstick vengeance concocted by committee makes the viewer climb up a slick wall with very few solid impressions to secure the journey (see The First Wives Club, the $100 million mountain with the molehill terrain).

Cora Cardona, artistic director at Teatro and the director of this production, has changed the location of this two-woman sexual farce, but any attempts to familiarize us with this already familiar story are redundant. Gabriella (Christina Vela) is an uptight scholar and published author whose forte is, appropriately enough, translation. She meets Marlene (Phyllis Cicero), a brassy beauty shop owner who chews candy Hot Tamales, while the pair are waiting to visit their incarcerated mate. It turns out that they have more in common than their icy first conversation suggests--hubby is a louse and chronic womanizer whose bedroom skills have enslaved both the cultured Gabriella and the street-smart Marlene. Outraged though they are by his messing around with an underaged girl (and Gabriella is considerably more outraged than the take-it-in-stride Marlene), they forge a pact to raise the money necessary to retain a sleazy but influential lawyer who will, in all likelihood, spring the man with just a slap on the wrist. They must concoct a Lucy and Ethel-esque money scheme to raise the necessary dough, however. A bottle of expensive rum and some very colorful conversations about sex and companionship sidetrack them.

A Rose By Any Other Name flaunts descriptive profanity like two women discussing a man's endowment (and relating it to his shortcomings in other areas) was the most novel catharsis out there. Of course, any playwright has the power to make toilet talk truly liberating, if they apply the blue streak to some larger, more surprising end than Peden and Carbadillo do here. As the dilemma unfolds, we accurately guess the final picture at the first glimpse of one puzzle piece. Carbadillo proves no great shakes at penetrating an extremely common social problem with insightful one-liners, at least as translated here by Peden.

The two actresses are abandoned to sink or synchronize swim, and one of them, unfortunately, attempts an elaborate, distracting water ballet all by herself. Phyllis Cicero has bedecked the no-bullshit Marlene in rubber-faced sista-girl shtick that gallops out of control, reducing the play to a series of muggings in a funhouse mirror. This script needs all the help it can get, so I don't quarrel with Cicero's attempts to infuse some attitude into the proceedings; I just wish she'd hang back a bit and muse over the difference between caricature and comedy, between playing something broadly and coloring outside the playwright's lines.

To start with, she might take a leaf from Christina Vela's book. I barely recognized this actress from her bespectacled, conservative-haired first scene (played, it seemed to me, with too much strained haughtiness) and the wild-maned, weepy, but deliciously vindictive Gabriella. Once she relaxes into the hijinks, Vela knows how to savor her character's freshly minted mean spirit so that we, too, get a taste of how flavorful her retribution fantasies are. In one solo scene, as Vela commiserates with a bottle of rum, she begins to weep over the thought of her handsome husband's potential popularity in prison. In one graceful arc, the tears turn to full-throated laughter; Vela has won us over with sensual malice.

I'm a sucker for talented actresses who can rescue weak scripts, and I was seized by the desire to see the director, Cora Cardona, perform opposite Vela. Cardona is a smashing actress in her own right who's been off the Dallas stage for too long. Maybe she could've provided the second transfusion that this anemic Rose desperately needs.

A Rose By Any Other Name runs through March 29. Call 741-1135.

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Jimmy Fowler