“El cuento de Rene,” actor and director Larry Villanueva’s adaptation of Cuban writer Rene Ariza’s short stories into a work of theater, is more than an homage. It’s a statement on oppression. Ariza was sentenced to eight years in prison for trying to send manuscripts abroad. He was banned from creating theater in Cuba and condemned as “counter-revolutionary.” Ariza served five years of his sentence and was released under general amnesty, after which he came to the U.S. on the Mariel Boatlift.
Revived by Arca Images 11 years after its debut, the play, directed by Villanueva, uses the absurd to reveal how hyper vigilance and an unquestioned sense of duty to a country or ideology can crush the human spirit and ultimately lead to madness.We spoke with Villanueva about the play and its continued relevance.
Describe “El cuento de Rene”? What’s it about?
Larry Villanueva: “El cuento de Rene” is the title given to a thematic play I put together by adapting seven stories written by Ariza. Each story is a world in its own but all of them have a common denominator: The surreal life of a citizen who lives under an oppressive socio-political regime. The dark humor detailed in Rene’s writing is a mere cover up to say what cannot be said openly. What Rene went through in his country in the 1970 can be compared to Orwell’s novel 1984. The element of Big Brother is present and translated in “El Cuento de Rene” as an almighty eye that is constant vigilance. The characters live an alternative reality in which the only escape is to dream on.
What inspired you to bring it to the stage?
Rene was an exceptional artist who considered himself to be a jester. He was often seen on the streets of Miami, improvising an act for children or telling one of his stories. In the ‘80s, I often saw him perform at friends’ gatherings. I never forgot his stories, in particular the one I perform in this show called “El Relato Sospechoso,” (“The Suspicious Man”).
Another of his eccentricities in those gatherings was that he would close his eyes or roll them up as if into a state of trance and, using two colored pencils, would move them on a piece of paper as if knitting. His head would doze to one side and to the other while moving the pencils on the paper. The result was always a painting of a Christ-like figure. I witnessed several of those in different many occasions. His writing is solid material for an actor and he was an inspiration when I was starting in the theater. I wanted to pay tribute to the artist and so I put together a show with his work.
You performed the opening monologue 11 years ago for Prometeo. Who directed that production?
I directed the same show at Miami Dade College when Teresa Maria Rojas had retired and left me at the head of the group, Prometeo, which she had founded along with [MDC president] Eduardo Padron in 1973. Even though I revise “El Relato Sospechoso” from time to time, I never thought I would do the entire show again. ARCA Images contacted me to revive the experience at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium. I didn’t hesitate, despite all the load of work I have in my present job in the theater with my students.
What are the challenges to performing and directing this particular work?
All the monologues are challenging in syntax. It is clear that the absurd was an influence in the work of the writer. Learning all the logical incongruences is a tour de force for the actor. In this opportunity we are doing the stories with professional actors like Carlos Acosta-Milian, Ariel Texido, Andy Barbosa and of course Rosie Inguanzo in “Los Bravos.” Her memorable characterization of a man giving into his homophobic urge to hunt “faggots,” is still as deliciously performed as when she did it 11 years ago.
Is there anything in particular that makes the play relevant or engaging in 2017?
The play is as relevant and universal as when we did it in 2006. The world continues to be the same. Nothing much has changed in Cuba. The regime is as oppressive as in the five decades they have been in power.
“El cuento de Rene,” presented by Arca Images, runs March 9 through 12, Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 3:00 p.m., at Blackbox On.Stage MDCA, 2901 West Flagler Street, Miami. Tickets $30 general admission, $25 seniors, students and groups (10+); in Spanish with simultaneous translation in English; for more information go to ticketmaster.com or miamidadecountyauditorium.org.
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