Theater / Film
Moisés Kaufman transforms bestseller ‘Juan Planchard’ into a Miami New Drama world premiere
The cast of Miami New Drama’s “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” in Moisés Kaufman’s stage adaptation at Miami New Drama. The production runs at the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach through Sunday, Nov. 12. (Photo courtesy of FURIOSA Productions)
Not long after filmmaker-screenwriter Jonathan Jakubowicz published his debut novel in late 2016, Venezuelans at home and abroad began asking each other the same question: “Have you read it?”
“It” is the politically pointed, darkly comic and heart-wrenching “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” (“The Adventures of Juan Planchard”), and by February 2017 the book topped Amazon’s foreign fiction list.
Among the Spanish-language novel’s deeply affected readers were theatermakers Moisés Kaufman and Michel Hausmann.
The longtime friends, Jewish artists who left Venezuela (Kaufman in 1987, Hausmann in 2010) to forge careers in the United States, are the co-founders of Miami New Drama at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road. It’s there that Kaufman’s stage version of “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” will have its world premiere, with previews beginning Wednesday, Oct. 18 through Sunday, Oct. 22 and Thursday and Friday, Oct. 26 and 27. The sold-out gala opening is Saturday, Oct. 28. The co-production of Miami New Drama and the Tectonic Theater Project runs through Sunday, Nov. 12.
A Kaufman world premiere is a big deal in the world of theater – on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in regional or international theaters. After co-founding the Manhattan-based Tectonic Theater Project in 1991, Kaufman has amassed impressive and eclectic credits as a playwright, director or both, all the while serving as Tectonic’s artistic director.
Among his best-known projects are 1997’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” 2000’s “The Laramie Project” (a piece about the hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard, devised by Kaufman and multiple members of Tectonic), 2004’s production of Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife,” 2007’s “33 Variations” starring Jane Fonda, 2011’s Broadway production of Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” starring Robin Williams, and the 2022 Broadway musical “Paradise Square.”
Hausmann thought Jakubowicz’s novel, set during the waning days of Hugo Chávez’s rule, was “a really great work of fiction. It unmasked the corrupt nature of the Chavista government. It was really a cultural punch we hadn’t been able to deliver . . . Moisés called me and asked if I’d read it, and when I said ‘of course,’ he said, ‘It’s a play.’ I thought he had lost his mind.”
Because the book is written like a screenplay, with dozens of characters and a story full of sex, violence, political intrigue and action set in multiple locations in the United States and Venezuela, a Hollywood movie version of the novel would cost $100 million, in Hausmann’s estimation. So how could Kaufman make a play of “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard?”
“I forgot who I was talking to,” says Hausmann. “Moisés is a champion of theatricality.”
Kaufman left Venezuela 12 years before Chávez came to power in 1999. Observing from afar as “my country was destroyed by a dictator, I felt like I was in a Chekhov play, watching the cherry orchard vanish.”
When he read Jakubowicz’s novel, he found it to be “exquisite literature with an unerring view of the situation in Venezuela.” Although much of Kaufman’s work weaves together the personal and the political, he felt guilty that he hadn’t yet addressed the decline and destruction of his home country, once one of South America’s greatest and wealthiest democracies.
“When I read it, I thought, ‘This is my play. This is for Miami New Drama,’” Kaufman says. “This is an act of defiance for me. The novel is brilliant. The play can only be as good as the novel. The characters literally leap off the page. I felt a great deal of passion about the story. It was thrilling to adapt it.”
Kaufman wrote his adaptation in Spanish, his first time creating a script in his original language. The play will be performed in Spanish with English supertitles, though several of the cast members play non-Latinx characters who speak in English.
As the adaptor of a Spanish-language novel, Kaufman felt the play should tell its story in Spanish too, and not just because of the vast Spanish-speaking population of Miami-Dade County. The creators hope that the stage version of “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” can have an ongoing life in other countries, as well as American regional theaters and in high-profile Manhattan.
Besides, Kaufman says, “During the pandemic, we became so adept at watching foreign films with subtitles. I think Americans are much more comfortable with that now.”
Watch the trailer for “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard”
Seven of the nine actors are Venezuelan, several of them among that country’s best-known actors. At one rehearsal, when Kaufman asked how many could not go back to Venezuela because of threats – including death threats – from supporters of President Nicolás Maduro, five actors raised their hands.
The story follows the adventures and many misadventures of Juan Planchard (Christian McGaffney), the handsome 29-year-old son of middle-class, anti-Chávez educators played by longtime Venezuelan stars Orlando Urdaneta and Elba Escobar.
Juan is a jet setter with his own plane and a $50 million fortune amassed through his business dealings with corrupt government officials. Partying, recreational drugs and a succession of exquisite women are his real passions – until, one night at a pro poker table in Las Vegas, he spies a stunning blonde named Scarlet (Elysia Roorbach).
Instantly, Juan downsizes his priorities to one: wooing and winning Scarlet. What he doesn’t know is that she isn’t merely a UCLA psychology student. Her baggage includes a domineering long-term boyfriend, one who’s clueless about her lucrative side gig as a high-end call girl. Nonetheless, she decides to go with the flow of Juan’s dazzling courtship, which leads back to Caracas, his parents and a horrific reckoning.
The Los Angeles-based Jakubowicz, for one, says he was “blown away” when he came to Miami for a reading of Kaufman’s transformation of his novel into theater.
“The book is a thrill ride with nonstop action. Nothing about it says ‘stage.’ But when I met Moisés, it made sense,” says Jakubowicz, who moved to the United States in 2006 after growing up in the same Caracas neighborhood and going to the same school some years after Kaufman did.
He adds that “Juan’s voice in the novel is a confessional. The story is a Shakespearean tragedy. I had no idea how Moisés would do it, but I know he can do anything.”
Jakubowicz jokes that “80 percent of Venezuelan Jews in the arts are involved in this play.” But he’s serious when he talks about why he wrote the novel and why its continuing life as a play is so meaningful.
“My friend in Venezuela was kidnapped and shot in the head. I was in Los Angeles, frustrated that I was unable to write a screenplay and shoot the movie in my home country. So I wrote the novel knowing it would communicate what I knew was the real face of the revolution,” says the director, whose best-known movies are 2004’s “Sequestro Express,” 2016’s “Hands of Stone” (starring Édgar Ramírez as boxer Roberto Durán and Robert DeNiro as his trainer) and 2020’s “Resistance,” winner of the German Film Peace Prize, with Jesse Eisenberg as the not-yet-famous Marcel Marceau.
Jakubowicz is hopeful that “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” will be produced in many of the places that have become home to the Venezuelan diaspora, now numbering nearly 8 million worldwide and nearly 200,000 in South Florida, the largest concentration of Venezuelan expats in the United States.
“This can help lead to change. The narrative is that Chávez was a good guy and Maduro destroyed everything. Especially now, there’s so much disinformation. People forget. It’s easy to romanticize Chávez. Maduro is a continuation of the original sin,” says Jakubowicz.
Kaufman calls making this particular play an act of defiance. He believes that “the Chávez phenomenon is being reenacted in so many different countries now, in all these places where authoritarian dictators are democratically elected, then take control of the country.”
In crafting his script, he has had an uncommon resource: the actors, whom he calls artists-in-exile.
Throughout rehearsals, he has used a Tectonic technique called “moment work” to explore, refine and heighten the play’s 47 flowing scenes, incorporating those moments into the final version of the production. Roorbach, who graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in May, is making her professional debut as Scarlet, and she found Kaufman’s “moment work” exhilarating.
“He uses the text, but he allows us to improvise – he calls it ‘making sketches.’ Then he sharpens and molds them. He’s engineering a solid sense of reality but being soft to change, trying everything. It’s really collaborative and focused,” she says.
The performers’ sharing of memories and personal stories, their expressions of grief about events that occurred long after Kaufman had left Venezuela, unleashed intense emotions in everyone.
One example: McGaffney and Urdaneta were working on a difficult scene between Juan Planchard and his father. Urdaneta, a famous actor, television personality and radio political commentator who had spent three hours a day on the air ribbing and criticizing the Chávez regime, escaped Venezuela 20 years ago after the assassination of two of his bodyguards and a clear death threat.
Some of the material in “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” was proving hard for him to handle emotionally. He cried more than once.
“I said to Moisés, ‘Today I’m going to open the tank, but I don’t know if I can close it again,’” says Urdaneta. “But the scene was beautiful, tender and funny. We’d rehearse, then Moisés would come up with a box of Kleenex, and we’d all be laughing and crying.”
McGaffney, whose father is British and mother Venezuelan, first worked with Hausmann and Kaufman 14 years ago in a Venezuelan production of “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” After starting in the ensemble, he stepped into the role of Wilde’s beloved Sir Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie. Hausmann directed, but Kaufman came to Caracas to fine-tune the production.
“I was 20, the youngest cast member, and I didn’t know who Moisés Kaufman was. He was working with us, and his cell phone rang. He said, ‘I have to take this,’ which I thought was strange. Afterwards, he told us it was Robin Williams,” say McGaffney.
The actor and playwright became friends, and Kaufman wrote McGaffney a letter of support when he applied for a Green Card. Kaufman reached out to the actor about “Juan Planchard” in 2019, and the transformation from novel to stage has been going on ever since.
“This guy is a freaking genius, that’s for sure. It feels like a workshop, an exploration that goes very deep, like we are the storytellers instead of just following the guidelines,” McGaffney says. “You need a head like the one Moisés has. I can’t imagine how he can rest his brain during rehearsals. He keeps grinding, looking for stuff.”
Perhaps ironically, McGaffney embodies a completely different kind of Venezuelan in director-screenwriter Diego Vicentini’s 2023 feature film debut “Simón.”
In the title role of the made-in-Miami movie, he plays a student leader/freedom fighter who escapes to Miami after being captured and tortured, only to face PTSD, survivor’s guilt and the prospect of building a new life if he isn’t deported.
“Juan Planchard is the other side…He is the consequence of so many decisions he didn’t take or make,” McGaffney says. “The story is so rich and deep, with so many layers – black, white and gray.”
Actor-singer Mariaca Semprún won South Florida’s 2022 Carbonell Award for her leading role in the Miami New Drama world premiere musical “Papá Cuatro.” In “Juan Planchard” she plays a trio of roles: a sexy model called La Brasileña, Scarlet’s wild BFF Francesca, and Vera Góldiger, a character inspired by the American writer-lawyer Eva Golinger, who specialized in international and immigration law and was an ardent Chávez supporter.
In “Papá Cuatro” Semprún, who can currently be seen in Telemundo’s “Malverde” and “Pálpito” on Netflix, shared parts of her Venezuelan past: the 2014 murder of her beauty queen friend Monica Spear and Spear’s husband by armed robbers during a Venezuelan vacation; a call from an airline employee warning Semprún and her writer-husband Leonardo Padrón not to come back to Caracas when they traveled to Miami to work on their Edith Piaf musical “Piaf, Voz y Delirio.”
“That was my first time telling my story onstage,” says Semprún. “I had always had a character as a shield…but I discovered that vulnerability is a superpower.”
Semprún became part of the “Juan Planchard” world premiere after Kaufman saw her in last summer’s return engagement of “Papá Cuatro.” Although she usually plays leading roles onstage, she took the three parts because she wanted to work with Kaufman, a creative experience she calls an amazingly personal and moving gift.
When she read Jakubowicz’s novel, she says, “I felt so sad. I felt a pain in my chest. Everything the book said was the truth.”
She adds of the play: “I think it’s my destiny to keep telling our story as a Venezuelan – the good, the bad, the horrible.”
Even before “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” opens, Kaufman feels changed by his work on it.
“It has been one of the most moving, epic and daunting experiences of my life in theater to be in that room with those artists…All of them gathered to make a point, a play against the government that exiled them,” he says.
“I got a feeling like I was in an underground meeting of the French resistance . . . I am so much in awe of the courage of these actors who are willing to revisit some of the worst episodes of their lives. It’s a kind of artistic revenge.”
WHAT: World premiere of “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” (“The Adventures of Juan Planchard”) by Moisés Kaufman (in Spanish with English supertitles)
WHERE: Miami New Drama production at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach
WHEN: Previews 8 p.m. Oct. 18-21, 3 p.m. Oct. 22, 8 p.m. Oct. 26-27; sold-out opening 8 p.m. Oct. 28; regular performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 12
COST: $46.50, $66.50, $69.50, $76.50, $83.50
INFORMATION: 305-674-1040 or miaminewdrama.org
ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.