Opened May 13, 2009 at the American Conservatory Theater
Rachel Ticotin (left) is Doña Milla, Lela Loren (center) is Flora and Robert Beltran is Don Fermin in the American Conservatory Theater production of Boleros for the Disenchanted by José Rivera. Photos by Kevin Berne (www.kevinberne.com)
ACT’s `Boleros’ marries schmaltz with substance
After the rough going of War Music, American Conservatory Theater’s previous show, José Rivera’s straightforward Boleros for the Disenchanted feels like a masterpiece.
But it’s not.
Rivera’s play has real heart and delivers a powerful, even edgy message about what marriage and commitment actually mean in the long term. We see two long-term marriages in the play, one toward the middle of its span, the other at both the beginning and the end. And though there’s romance, tenderness and true love, there’s also pain, violence, betrayal, righteous indignation and downright stubbornness.
Based on his own parents’ love story, Rivera writes with passion for much of the play’s 2 ½-plus hours. He begins in Puerto Rico in the early 1950s when lovely Flora (Lela Loren), her heart broken by the man she thought was the love of her life (a weasley Dion Mucciacito), meets and falls in love with a young National Guardsman named Eusebio (Drew Cortese).
Then, in Act 2, Rivera jumps us 40 years ahead to the early ’90s. Flora, now played by Rachel Ticotin, is the caretaker of Eusebio (Robert Beltran), whose spirit is intact though his body has been ravaged by diabetes.
In spite of a difficult life together, including the births of nine children and the deaths of three, Flora and Eusebio still seem to have the kind of bond that young, idealistic Flora dreamed about in the years leading up to her marriage. They have held on, worked hard and raised a family. Now they’re stuck in Daleville, Ala., lonely and, as the play’s title indicates, disenchanted. But they still have each other and Eusebio’s obsession with his own death.
Ticotin and Beltran are marvelous together, and Tictotin displays extraordinary reserves of strength and passion and anger. She is the heart of the play, though she must concede the highlight of Act 2 to Cortese as a priest called to give Eusebio last rites but who instead attempts to reinvigorate the passion and deep connection of a bumpy 39-year-old marriage.
At times, Rivera makes marriage seem like a prison cell (emphasized by the Act 2 penitentiary-like set by Ralph Funicello) and at other times like the only conceivable way to get through life as a fully alive human being.
The play would probably benefit from a theater smaller than ACT’s beautiful but spacious home. Funicello’s sets, especially in the Act 1 Puerto Rico scenes, overwhelm the actors, who seem to be fighting the space. Director Carey Perloff has trouble moving her actors around the stage in ways that don’t seem programmed to counteract the epic space and its effect on a much more intimate, if over-long, drama.
Act 1 feels like an extended prologue that keeps ending and then continuing. The time spent in Puerto Rico with Flora and her parents (played by Ticotin and Beltran) is colorful and dramatic, but there’s a lot of unnecessary time spent with characters who don’t necessarily add to the portrait of a marriage we see in Act 2.
When we finally get to the tough, tender core of the play in Act 2 – the relationship between Eusebio and Flora in their later years – the potency of Rivera’s writing finally begins to land. But the distance between audience and actors prevents the play from being as moving as it could and should be.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
José Rivera’s Boleros for the Disenchanted continues through May 31 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.