Going South: A sampler of daring new Argentine theater comes to P.S. 122.

Issue 579 : Nov 2–6, 2006

Don’t cry for us, Argentina: This month, New Yorkers can expect a generous helping of your theater. While many of us are familiar with Argentine writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, or tango spectacles, the country’s contemporary dramatists remain virtually unknown in the north. But the minifestival Buenos Aires in Translation (BAiT) hopes to change that, pairing four of Argentina’s young experimental playwrights—Daniel Veronese, Lola Arias, Rafael Spregelburd and Federico León—with four local directors to build a theatrical bridge between the Americas.
     BAiT is the brainchild of Shoshana Polanco, 36, a native-born Argentine performer-impresario. All four of the plays she’s chosen to showcase are tinged with Buenos Aires culture and history, but have a global appeal. Veronese’s Women Dreamt Horses examines, in violently physical abstractions choreographed by Jay Scheib, the tensions involved in the closure of a family business. Arias’s A Kingdom, a Country or a Wasteland, in the Snow, staged by Yana Ross, is a poetic tragedy set in a bleak, postapocalyptic landscape. Brooke O’Harra will lead members of the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf through Spregelburd’s Panic, a family comedy-drama with low-budget horror-movie undertones. And León’s Ex-Antwone examines a dreamlike labyrinth of history and fantasy, directed by Juan Souki. Excerpts from the plays presented at CUNY’s Prelude ’06 festival earlier this fall were enthusiastically received, and while Argentine drama will probably not be as hot a trend as tango lessons, there’s definitelysome lust for Latin American arts in NYC.
     One major cultural disconnect that playwright Spregelburd noticed during visits to New York is in the structure of theatrical funding and production: Americans face more challenges transferring their vision from the page to the stage. The well-subsidized Spregelburd expects support and resources to usher one of his plays through a year of preparation and production; the calendar is less forgiving to New York artists, for whom he expresses enormous admiration. “If I were to produce a play over there—the way independent groups are forced to do—knowing that they’ll have only 15 days to perform, I don’t think I’d invest a year of my life, my creative time, in such a process,” he admits from Buenos Aires via e-mail. “This leads to a reduction of risks and, unfortunately, to standardization. I look up to groups that maintain high quality while struggling in such harsh conditions.” Polanco explains that Buenos Aires has a three-tiered theater scene not unlike New York’s: large-scale commercial shows, subsidized nonprofit venues and a scrappy Fringe. Unlike here, though, an Argentine “Off-Off” show can run for months if there’s an audience.
     The idea for BAiT evolved from a modest set of script-in-hand readings to a more fully realized event. “The project took the form it has right now thanks to [P.S. 122 artistic director] Vallejo Gantner’s enthusiasm,” Polanco explains. “Frank Hentschker [from CUNY] also championed us from the beginning. He gave us a home for a May 2006 reading, and he introduced us to our translator, Jean Graham-Jones, who was a perfect match.” Polanco chose scripts from both authors she knew as a result of ten years working in the Buenos Aires theater scene, and new writers.
     Gantner views BAiT as a means of broadening not only his venue’s mission but the theater scene in general. “I see it as a model for the kind of international projects we’d like to set up,” Gantner says. “The exchange opens interesting doors for American artists, in terms of both creativity and career.”
     Alas, BAiT is passing through town for only two weeks this time around; but those who miss it can still get a picture of Latin American drama when the plays are published in the festival anthology next year. Also, in 2007, our counterparts in Buenos Aires can expect a similar U.S. drama sampler in their city. Look out, Argentina!