Theater / Film
REVIEW: Moisés Kaufman’s ‘Juan Planchard’ is a wild ride through Venezuela’s past at Miami New Drama
Carlos Fabián Medina is Alias Ramiro in the Miami New Drama world premiere of “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” at the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach through Sunday, Nov. 12. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)
Developing world premiere theater and bringing it to the fruition of a gala opening requires (among other things) immense creativity, abundant courage, collaborative fortitude and a budget to realize the creators’ dreams.
In the case of the Miami New Drama-Tectonic Theater Project world premiere of Moisés Kaufman’s “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard,” the play got all of the above, including a budget in the neighborhood of $1 million.
The co-production runs through Sunday, Nov. 12 at the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.
Based on the massively popular 2016 novel by Jonathan Jakubowicz, “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” is a departure for Kaufman, the celebrated playwright-director whose credits include “The Laramie Project,” “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and dozens of plays on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in major regional theaters.
“Juan Planchard” is Kaufman’s first play written and performed in Spanish, and the first to deal with the political and personal realities of the Venezuelan homeland he left in 1987. Satire, ugly politics and stark tragedy blend in his theatricalized version of Jakubowicz’s story.
Launching the play at Miami New Drama, the theater Kaufman co-founded with artistic director Michel Hausmann, makes sense. Nearly 200,000 Venezuelans now call South Florida home, as do a vast potential audience of other Spanish speakers.
To make the piece accessible for those who don’t know the language, the dialogue is translated into English (or Spanish, in the few sequences where the characters speak English) and displayed as a running subtitle just under the playing area.
One problem: If you’re an audience member sitting at certain angles behind a tall person, forget trying to follow along word for word. Supertitles at the top of the stage might not have worked as well aesthetically, but that placement would have been far better for anyone with minimal Spanish.
In truth, it’s best to keep your eyes on the action so you don’t miss any of Kaufman’s masterful staging or the powerful performances from the cast of nine, seven of whom are from Venezuela.
As the title promises, the play revolves around the evolving adventures of Juan Planchard (Christian McGaffney), the 29-year-old son of middle-class educators who deeply disapprove of the socialist government of President Hugo Chávez.
Juan is a believer, in part because his entrepreneurial dealings with corrupt officials have allowed him to amass a $50 million fortune, though the people the revolution was to have uplifted continue to live in violent, poverty-stricken barrios.
As the narrator and central character, the striking McGaffney has to command the stage. Juan evolves from bored jet-setting rich guy who’s a little shocked at his own unhappiness to ardent lover in pursuit of his American dream girl to a man whose wakeup call is bathed in blood. Rarely off the stage, McGaffney grows even more compelling as the play turns darker.
Initially, Juan Planchard is living out a rather comic love story. He meets the radiant blonde psychology major Scarlet Thomas (Elysia Roorbach) at a Las Vegas poker table, then goes into romance overdrive. Juan woos her with rides in his private plane, takes her to a performance of “Il Postino” at the Metropolitan Opera and eventually consummates their fast-developing passion in Manhattan’s Battery Park, within sight of the Statue of Liberty.
In truth, this isn’t a cultured couple. Juan’s sleek apartment is in the building that houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though he’s never bothered to visit the museum; California girl Scarlet has not only never been to the opera, she’s never gone to New York. More problematically, they’re both shady, Juan in the way he has amassed his wealth, Scarlet in her side hustle as a high-end prostitute who has figured out an easy way to pay her UCLA tuition.
“Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” grows more interesting, compelling and unnerving when the action moves to Venezuela.
It’s 2011, two years before the death of Chávez from cancer. Scarlet is entranced by the beauty of twinkling lights on a hillside as Juan’s plane approaches Caracas, not realizing that they’re dotting the impoverished barrios near the port of Guaira, the dangerous Petare, the place called Los sin techos (without roofs).
She (and we) meet Juan’s parents. Papá (Orlando Urdaneta) makes clear his disapproval of Juan’s embrace of a system that has brought increasing violence and poverty to Venezuela. Mamá (Elba Escobar) lovingly shows Juan’s childhood photos to Scarlet, who smoothly lies and says the two have been together for a year. Outside, deadly disaster beckons.
One of the most arresting scenes takes place at the Palacio de Miraflores at a reception where Juan learns he can get in on a deal to construct prisons, making millions without actually building them.
At first, the deal-making among Juan, an official dubbed Diputada Endragonada (Deputy Dragon Lady, also played by Escobar) and Juan’s government fixer Vera Góldiger (Mariaca Semprún) is played as high comedy. Just before an ailing Chávez arrives, the characters have thermometers stuck in their mouths because their leader can’t be around anyone who is sick. As they speak, the thermometers wiggle.
But once the president enters, sporting a red beret, the temperature in the room changes. Tall and somber, Roberto Jaramillo as Chávez delivers a chilling fable about a hunter, cannibals and a white elephant, a story whose meaning other characters will try to pinpoint several times. The scene, with its emotional turns, demonstrates Kaufman’s prowess at tonal shifts.
Though the first act of “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” is overly long (the play currently runs about 2½ hours including intermission), the second is intense, urgent and filled with tragedy. People important to Juan are murdered. Seeking vengeance, he comes up against Liebre (Carlos Fabián Medina), who knows where the perpetrators are. Revenge transforms him, and Juan’s dealings with the ruthless Alias Ramiro (also played by Medina) are even worse, the outcome more horrific.
A kind of coda involving Scarlet, her violent ex-boyfriend Michael (Patrick Ball) and Juan becomes the setup for a Juan Planchard sequel. But it plays like something of an afterthought, except when the radiant Góldiger visits Juan in prison – see the play to find out why he’s there – to offer him an unexpected future.
Kaufman’s creative team, which includes Tony Award-winning set designer Derek McLane, creates a stylish yet somewhat minimalist/abstract world that’s just right for a story emanating from Juan’s memories.
Evelyn Villegas’s costumes (particularly the stunning blue outfit Góldiger wears to visit Juan in his orange jumpsuit), the lighting (and strategic darkness) by co-designers by Alejandro Fajardo and Ben Stanton, music and sound by Salomon Lerner, Arnoldo Maal’s props, movement choreography by Marcos Santana, intimacy choreography by Lauren Kiele DeLeon and fight choreography by Lee Soroko are all first rate and essential to Kaufman’s fluid storytelling.
The cast seems far larger than it is because most of the actors play two, three, four or more roles.
Semprún, who won a best actress Carbonell Award for her role in last season’s “Papá Cuatro” at Miami New Drama, is sensational as Góldiger (pay attention to how her accent changes), Scarlet’s ebullient friend Francesca and a Brazilian beauty who “toasts” Juan with a pre-orgy tab of Ecstasy sporting Che Guevara’s likeness.
Urdaneta and Escobar are wonderful, seasoned actors who bring the gravitas of their long careers in Venezuela to playing Juan’s stricken parents and other roles.
Vicente Peña flies high as Juan’s coke-sniffing pal Eduardo, anxious to get his fortune smuggled out of Venezuela before Chávez dies. In addition to Chávez, Jaramillo is an imposing presence as Juan’s longtime friend and bodyguard Pantera. Medina is truly chilling, particularly as Alias Ramiro.
The Juan-Scarlet-Michael triangle may intrigue some, but it seems to pale against the power of the Venezuelan story. Roorbach is certainly alluring as Scarlet, but though she conveys the character’s faux innocence and self-serving pragmatism, she lacks the steel Scarlet would have in unguarded moments. Ball’s domineering Michael is a bully, a blackmailer and an abuser, so who wouldn’t give him up for a rich Venezuelan hottie?
Watching Kaufman’s take on the cultural phenomenon that is “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard” offers a rare opportunity to be among the first audiences experiencing the work of a theatrical master. But there are levels of engagement, and the deepest ones will be felt by those able to appreciate the intricacies of Kaufman’s script and the references/details that make up the world of Juan Planchard.
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: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Extended through Nov. 19
COST: $46.50, $66.50, $69.50, $76.50, $83.50
INFORMATION: 305-674-1040 or miaminewdrama.org
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