Theatre Review: Maria de Buenos Aires

You wouldn’t normally compare Pittsburgh’s East Liberty to Buenos Aires. But, if you imagine a Buenos Aires whose magnificence was marred throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by struggles for independence, changing demographics (due to massive immigration) and corruption, you can begin to see the ties between them. The East Liberty YMCA, a near-derelict building whose skeleton beneath the dust evokes its glamour at the time of its Carnegie-financed construction, lends its second floor ballroom to Quantum Theatre’s latest production, Maria de Buenos Aires.

The stage on which Maria… is performed zig zags through the space in a way that makes every seat in the audience a unique vantage point, which lends itself well to the intricate labyrinth of this production. An amalgam of various theatrical forms with dance, poetry and film, Maria… envelopes its viewer in a multimedia experience. The audience is given a multitude of sensory experience as it perches in cabaret-style seating, tables draped in black velvet atop which sits a welcome glass of sangria. The elements of the show mix together, including expertly performed opera singing, the audaciously exploratory dancing, and the rhythmically incanted lines of the duende (goblin) narrators, which are alternately spoken in English and Spanish, and accented on three screens. Intermittently, the screens also feature video of the characters making use of the venue, expanding the storyline, and including flashes of the Argentine people and other motifs that perfectly accompany what’s on stage.
At times a frenetic representation of passion and violence and at others a swooning lamentation of struggle and sorrow, the energy of this operita draws one in via its various hypnotic elements. Attack Theatre provides the dance that is itself a mixture of different forms (milonga, tango, contemporary), which mirrors composer Astor Piazzolla‘s career and intentions for this show.

Maria… now stands as a classic of Latin American theater that experimented with seemingly disparate forms at the time—opera and tango. Piazzolla weathered angry and oftentimes violent reactions from the native populace who considered him to be despoiling the tango form. Setting tango to words was unthinkable; however, the alteration paralleled Argentinean modernization as tango began to thrive in the cities’ clubs. Piazzolla meshed local traditions with his classical inclinations (he studied in Paris, and idolized composers such as Stavinsky and Bartók) to tell the story of Maria, a woman no stranger to Buenos Aires’ red light districts who undergoes the struggles of a rapidly urbanizing people. Her incendiary story inspires not primarily because of plot but because of what she represents. Tragically, Maria plays casualty to the destruction necessary to breed an enduring art form. Set against a violent political backdrop, of which the implications are notorious enough to be implicit, Maria encapsulates the universal struggle through which profound art emerges.

Maria is aptly likened to an “everywoman” character in the Director’s Notes by Karla Boos, Quantum Theatre’s founder and stage director of this show (she also appears as a speaker on stage). Boos and collaborating Music Director Andres Cladera, of Renaissance City Choirs and The Microscopic Opera Company, showcase Quantum’s strengths with Maria de Buenos Aires, which is running April 1–April 17 (Wednesdays–Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 7; additional shows April 4–5 and 12 at 8:30, and 16th at 10).

Quantum Theatre patrons can also enjoy discounts at local restaurants such as Paris 66, Abay and Tana (the latter two are Ethiopian fare), among others (check Quantum’s website for tickets and more details).

Also be sure to watch a video interview with Boos and Cladera, who offer a thoughtful examination of the elements of this production.

Filed under: Reviews: Performing Arts