La Chunga Has Teeth
In Havanafama’s rendition of Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Chunga, director Juan Roca utilizes music, movement, and moments of dance to imbue the play with a distinctively Miami aesthetic. In a hardscrabble, coastal town in the North of Peru, four men play dice, gamble, and drink under the impervious gaze of la Chunga, the bar’s owner, played by Ivette Kellems. The drama is set into motion when one of the men asks la Chunga what happened the night she spent with the young nubile Mechita. The story goes that Mechita’s boyfriend, Josefino, lost all his money gambling, and la Chunga offered to pay off his debit in exchange for one night alone with Mechita. After their mysterious nocturnal encounter, Mechita was never seen again. The play is comprised of a series of scenes that imagine what could have taken place that night between the two women, but also who among the men might have caused Mechita’s disappearance. The result is a gripping drama that is part gritty erotic fantasy and part psychological nightmare. Although La Chunga is about one woman’s attraction for another woman, it is even more so a psychological journey into male misogyny and how women survive it. Sitting in a wooden rocking chair upstage from the men, Kellems strikes a potent figure from the play’s first few seconds until the very end. The glare in her dark eyes and the hard lines of her strong features appear to be carved from granite and so does her heart; however, she is refreshingly honest with Mechita about her attraction for her and her certitude that Mechita’s life will end in shambles if she stays with the abusive macho, Josefino (portrayed wickedly well by Isaniel Rojas). Kellems is excellent as la Chunga. Although she experiences strong emotions such as lust and rage, she never completely abandons her character’s impenetrable stoicism, except in one disturbing confrontation between la Chunga and Josefino where we are painfully reminded of her vulnerability as a woman. Kellem’s outstanding performance is the heart and soul of La Chunga. Directing La Chunga with an intimate understanding of the text, Juan Roca draws out every ounce of visceral power these actors have to offer. Interestingly, he also uses movement to create a cinematic affect. While Mechita and la Chunga are up stage, the four actors around the table pantomime their drunken stupor to maintain the seedy, hole-in-the-wall sense of place. Mechita, played by the talented Tamara Melian, does a very explicit table dance for the four men. As the table turns, she undulates and dips, transforming herself into the object of each man’s desire. Melian does an excellent job of giving Mechita a glamour and naiveté reminiscent of the silver screen stars of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but she also reveals Mechita’s cunning and street smarts. Invited artist Julie De Granfy periodically shuffles across the stage and sings a sad bolero. This is another one of Roca’s aesthetic touches and her ghostlike presence infuses the play with an eerie sense of melancholy. In a less astute production it would be easy to overemphasize the erotic encounter between the two women and forget that the play exists in an underworld where women are forced into prostitution and men die in knife fights. Havanafama’s production holds true to Vargas Llosa’s vision and the result is a powerful production. La Chunga runs Saturdays at 8:30 and Sundays at 6:00 p.m. until Dec. 15 at the Compañía Teatral Havanafama, 752 S.W. 10 Ave. , Miami; tickets are $20. For more information and reservations, call 786-319-1716.