Boleros For The Disenchanted at The Calderwood Theatre in Boston's South End

Playwright José Rivera's Puerto Rican Family Offering

By: - Oct 21, 2008

Boleros for the Disenchanted
By José Rivera
Directed by Chay Yew
Set designed by Alexander Dodge
Costumes by Anita Yavich
Lighting by Paul Whitaker
Music composition and sound design by Fabian Obispo
The Virginia Wimberly Theatre
The Stanford Calderwood Pavilion
The Boston Center for the Arts
Huntington Theatre Company
Ticket Office:617-266-0800

Created by Academy Award nominated writer José Riviera ( the highly acclaimed The Motor Cycle Dairies and Cloud Tectonics), it is the story of a troubled Puerto Rican family in mid 20th century. The playwright has a wonderful way with words and speaks to the very essence of traditional Puerto Rican values set against the changing mores of modernity. It is a Latin story with an American location.

Beginning in 1953, the play is set at a modest house in a small town in Puerto Rico. The narrative tells the story of a traditional small town lower middle class Puerto Rican family, a negative and macho father, Don Fermin, and an optimistic yet subservient mother, Donna Milla. Their beautiful daughter, Flora, is engaged to an acknowledged philanderer, Manuelo, who she eventually rejects.

Soon after traveling to another larger town to visit her more sophisticated cousin, Flora meets a young National guardsman, Eusebio. She falls immediately in love and has a whirlwind, rebound marriage. Following the wedding, the couple tells her cantankerous, bitter and abusive father that they are moving to the US, he curses the new husband. This is Act One.

Act Two is about the painful existence of Flora and Eusebio nearly four decades later. Not establishing roots, they have moved around the United States from place to place. The couple has had ssix children. Two died, two went to college and two went into the armed services. For them, the possibilities and potential of the US were bittersweet and not very prosperous. Health issues have effected them. Tragically, Flora's father's curse was enacted upon them. This is not a happy story, but at best, a wistful one.

Here is a tale of traditional machismo and changing mores. This is a dramatic immigrant experience story of a family that is tested and perhaps sometimes strengthened over nearly four trying decades of marriage. Passion gives way to just love. At the end, the old couple, Flora and Eusebio, exhibit a fierce commitment to each other.

The parents have an older son who has emigrated to the United States, actually The Bronx in New York City. He has cut off all ties to them. They do not know what he does or where he actually lives. This is a metaphor for the opportunistic mass migration of young Puerto Ricans during the 1950's from their island homeland to the United States. Interestingly, the parents still hold out hope that he will return or at least reconnect with them. This suggests the total disconnect of the younger population from traditional Puerto Rican values.

José Riviera demonstrates that the traditional values are not necessarily good. The father slaps around Flora and her mother. Flora was not allowed to go to school beyond the third grade. Perhaps, the old man beat his lost son as well? Yet, there is much hypocritical talk by the father of following tradition and appropriate respect. This contradiction was a major point of the playwright. Following rules and potential may not result in in anything great.

This drama showcases beautiful even evocative performances of family members and chosen and rejected suitors that reflect upon the pull of modernity against traditional values of machismo Latin culture. Here, there is a sense of profound loss of a native homeland, Puerto Rico in the context of a changing and often puzzling but potentially rewarding but eventually disappointing United States. At the end of the play, the love of Flora and Eusebio is virtually all that holds them together.

The acting was naturalistic and exemplary. Each of the six actors was superb. Monica Raymund is a wonderful Flora. Socorro Santiago portrays her thoughtful and abused mother and the older Flora. You actually hate Jaime Tirelli as Flora's father Don Fermin in the first act and you are sympathetic to him as the older Eusebio in Act 2. Elliot Villar is a realistic younger Eusebio while Juan Javier Cardenas plays a conflicted handsome Manuelo. Maria-Christina Oliveras plays an exuberant Petra and contemporary woman Monica.

As usual, at a Hunting Theatre Company production, the stagecraft was superb. Alexander Dodge created a beautiful redolent setting. Anita Yavich's costumes were just right. Paul Whitaker's lighting was evocative and elegant.

A play written with such sensitive characterizations about a particular ethnic or national group is a meaningful experience. Unfortunately, great characterizations, wonderful acting, but a disconnected and unevolved storyline does not make a great play. That is the problem here. The narrative was not well-structured. Instead of being a family portrait, it is more of a series of at times out of focus snapshots. It is as if Playwright Riviera left out two major ingredients in his theatrical recipe: continuity and dramatic arch.

The separation between the first act and the second are hard to follow. The hope of the newly weds in the first is utterly ruined  in the second by the older life portrayed. The story is established through too many words that told way too little. What is left unsaid is not implied but just unsaid. There was no clear dramatic action, only spoken about and spoken about lightly. The play was further obscured by the use of the same actors in the first act playing different roles in the second. They were too recognizable and tended to add confusion rather than dramatic coincidence.

However, in fairness, much of the dialogue is clever, at times humorous and even memorable. There is a unique, naturalistic earthiness to the production. Riviera is certainly on to something here. It just is not yet refined enough or edited enough. With the basic ingredients here and  some serious reworking, José Riviera could create a  classic drama.