Theater / Film

Review: ‘Laughs In Spanish’ At GableStage Captures The Flavor Of Miami

Written By Michelle F. Solomon
May 29, 2024 at 12:50 PM

Gaby Tortoledo as Estella and Mariana Mondragon as her daughter Mariana in GableStage’s “Laughs in Spanish” playing through June 23 at the theater at the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Although Miami native Alexis Scheer’s play, “Laughs in Spanish,” was born in Boston (she wrote it as her MFA playwrighting program thesis at Boston University), has played in Denver, Houston, and Milwaukee, seeing the show with a cast and a director who understand the nuances of Miami’s language and style, sets up a multi-layered playing field.

At GableStage, the actors obviously bring their own backgrounds to the piece – Colombian and Venezuelan roots, Cuban-American Miamians, and at the head of it all, Cuban-American director Victoria Collado, who producing artistic director Bari Newport had enlisted for the company’s early summer 2023 show, “Native Gardens.”

Marcela Paguaga, Gaby Tortoledo_and William Guevara in GableStage’s production of “Laughs in Spanish.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

In Collado’s director’s notes, her thought process comes through: “This play celebrates our Miami . . where the best advice comes from your abuela, or your bubbe. The place where disco never died; it just evolved in Miami Sound Machine and House Music.”

“Laughs in Spanish” finds Wynwood art gallery owner, Mariana (Mariana Mondragón), on the verge of a nervous breakdown, when she discovers on the day of Art Basel, that someone has stolen star artist Marco Diaz’s artwork, the draw that would bring in the crème de la crème of the art world to her Studio Six gallery.

Her intern, Carolina or “Caro” (Marcela Paguaga) was the last person to leave the gallery and Mariana is pinning the disappearance on her incompetence. Meanwhile, Caro’s boyfriend, Juan (William Guevara), a Miami Police officer, is on hand to investigate. All he wants, however, is for his girlfriend, an MFA art student, to get the chance to show her paintings. Maybe this is the perfect time now that Mariana’s walls are empty.

Mariana Mondragon as Mariana confronts her mother, Estella (Gaby Tortoledo) in a scene from GableStage’s “Laughs in Spanish” written by Miami native Alexis Scheer. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

To add more bedlam to the chaos, Mariana’s mother, Estella (Gaby Tortoledo), a Hollywood movie star has flown in from Los Angeles with her assistant Jenny (Magali Trench) to save the day. But sincerity is not Estella’s strong suit, and she hasn’t come to Miami entirely for her daughter; there’s something from her past that has called her back.

If there’s to be a criticism, Scheer has stuffed too many plotlines into her 80-minute play – Mariana’s resentment over her mother who was off being a movie star while she was growing up, a surprise situation that can change the relationship of Juan and Caro, and a hard-to-believe happenstance that Mariana and her mother’s assistant knew each other from boarding school. They now realize they always had feelings towards each other. The play tackles gender, celebrity, motherhood, and misogyny – it’s a lot in a show that plays like a sketch comedy.

The cast of GableStage’s “Laughs In Spanish” in one of the dance segues. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

But the high energy direction and the staging overcomes any shortcomings of the script. The winners in this show are the production values – the bright Welcome to Wynwood graffiti-esque paint on the base of the stage, the floor to ceiling colorful artworks of Miami-based Diana “Didi” Contreras, that also end up gracing the walls of the gallery after the heist.

“Everyone should always be a moment away from dancing,” instructs Scheer in her stage notes, and they are. During scene changes, the cast vogues to a soundtrack by Ernesto K. Gonzalez, who is on stage as the DJ and is also the sound designer for the show.

Gonzalez’s music mix had some in the audience recognizing sounds going back to their Miami roots: “Yes and,” “Atrevete,” “Da Burrito,” “What You Came For,” “Burbujas de Amor,” “Pulitio Chicken,” “Contigo,” “Oye,” “Dreaming of You,” and “Esa Morena.”

Ernesto K. Gonzalez seen here with actress Magali Trench created a soundtrack for “Laughs in Spanish” that is oh, so Miami. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

To her credit, while a specific culture is at the center of the play, Scheer never alienates, the story is universal, but it does help if you’re familiar with code-switching and Miami’s Spanglish that’s unlike anywhere else. Scheer instructs in the script: “The Miami natives in this play, all except Jenny, code-switch throughout the play…affecting their dialect, style, and vocabulary based on who they are speaking to. For example, anyone speaking to Jenny will unconsciously sound what we might understand as less-Hispanic.  . . . These characters never do it for comedic effect, it’s simply the way they live. (But I hope, at times, we can find it funny.)”

“Laughs in Spanish” is also steadfast in its focus on that it be the work of an ensemble. While movie maven, Estella, is the strongest character, director Collado sticks to working with the ensemble as a whole to make everything work. The ensemble of GableStage’s “Laughs in Spanish” was put to the test when the actress playing Caro (Paguaga) fell during a rehearsal and injured her ankle. Scenes had to be restaged since Paguaga had to use a walker with a seat and crutches. No changes were made in the script to accommodate the injury. Smart move; her hobbling around the stage fits into the rest of the zaniness. Hats off to Paguaga for the ability to make it seem effortless.

Gaby Tortoledo entertains her fans as Estella in GableStage’s “Laughs in Spanish.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

This is a show that can draw a younger demographic into the theater and GableStage with its additions of colorful contemporary art and a thumping soundtrack. Also, with the help of Miami radio icon Lucy López, GableStage’s production features another element where a Miami influencer takes the stage as the DJ for Saturday evening performances bringing in their followers, perhaps some that have never been to the theater. Under Newport’s leadership, GableStage has been noticeably taking chances and working to remain relevant. This play choice is indicative of that.

With “Laughs in Spanish,” they’ve selected a breezy summer closer, nothing too heavy, lotsa laughs, and plenty of eye candy.

WHAT: “Laughs in Spanish” by Alexis Scheer 

WHERE: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables 

WHEN:  2 and 7:30 p.m., Wednesday; 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through June 23. Streaming available at regular performance times beginning May 31 through June 23.

COST:  $45, $50, $60, $65, all with additional $10 service fee (discounts for students, teachers, artists, military and groups). $30 for streaming tickets.

INFORMATION:  305-445-1119 or gablestage.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. 

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