Theatre Review: “Our Dad is in Atlantis/Papa’ Esta’ en la Atla’ntida” at the Phoenix

Julio Cesar Chavez Juarez and Mark Presto in “Our Dad is in Atlantis”I just got home from an especially transformative night at the theatre.   (Well, actually, it was two nights ago, Thursday, as I finish writing this post.)

I drove downtown to the Phoenix Theatre to see the first Spanish performance in Indiana of “Papa’ Esta’ en la Atla’ntida” or “Our Dad is in Atlantis”, by Javier Malpica.  I had gone to the opening night performance, which was in English (English translation by Jorge Ignacio Cortinas), a couple weeks ago.

The English performance gave me the story:  Two young brothers (Julio Cesar Chavez Juarez and Mark Presto) have been left behind in Mexico by their father, who is looking for work in the United States.  Their mother is dead.  They live with their scary grandmother at first, and later with other negligent relatives, before finally, desperately, setting out across the desert themselves. 

Their story is told in several short scenes interspersed with wordless musical storytelling by a cowboy-like accordion player, David Wierhake.   Each scene gets its own caption via a screen at one side of the stage.  “Stuff About Men” is one scene, for example.  “Stuff about God and Heaven” is another.

The ending took my breath away when I saw the piece in English, but I thought at first that I had had only an intellectual response to the piece as a whole.  It was interesting to imagine, in a detached way, what life was like for these abandoned boys.

However, the story, especially the last scene, lingered in my heart and mind for several days.  I realized then that the play had affected me on an emotional level as well.

The Spanish performance Thursday night gave me an even richer experience of the story and a deeper connection to the cultures and issues that inspired it. 

I also understood better that the relationship between the two brothers is funny and warm.  Sometimes they annoy each other, as most brothers do, but they also support each other.  

It is easy to forget that the Younger Brother is played by an adult actor, Mark Presto. Presto gives his character an eager innocence and love of people that is irresistible (except to his relatives, I guess.  Stupid, blind relatives.)  It is also easy to forget that the Older Brother, a teenager, is played by an adult actor, Julio Cesar Chavez Juarez.  The older brother needs more “alone time” than his younger brother, but he is also very protective of him.  Juarez broke my heart in sympathy over the burdens that the older brother carries for the two of them.

Beyond the story and the characters, it was simply a pleasure to listen in a relaxed way to what is to me a foreign and beautiful language. 

I haven’t always felt that way about Spanish: when I was in high school, Spanish was the language that everyone thought was “an easy ‘A’.”  I turned up my nose and studied French.  More recently, Spanish has been the language that I hear being mangled by white supervisors talking to Latino employees at fast food restaurants.

But Thursday night I heard Spanish being used in a real way to tell a real and moving story about real people.  Plus, it was just beautiful to hear: all those rolling r’s and the fluid, romantic rhythms.

That night I said to Spanish, “Hey!  Where have you been all my life?” and Spanish said, “Aqui’, chica.  Where have YOU been?”

I was surprised by how many words jumped out at me that I knew:  “abuela” and “donde” and “amigos” and “pero” and “por favor” and so on. I don’t know enough Spanish to have understood the piece without having heard it in English first, but it was satisfying to recognize so many individual words.   

I was also fascinated by how the actors’ portrayals changed in subtle ways using the new language.

Although both actors are bilingual, Presto’s first language is English and Juarez’ first language is Spanish.  It is lovely and intriguing to see both versions of the show.  Both actors’ work is strong in both versions, but in the English version, Presto’s comfort with the language gives the younger brother extra ebullience.  In the Spanish version, Juarez’ comfort with the language gives the older brother extra charm.  In the English version, the older brother is quieter, more reserved, and maybe a little more weary or sad.  In the Spanish version, the younger brother seems even younger, even more vulnerable.

They are both cuties, either way!  Both inspire sympathy and affection.

It really is ideal to go to both an English and a Spanish performance of this piece.  Each is satisfying on its own, but I am glad I took advantage of the unique opportunity to have an even more layered experience.  Thursday night, even though I knew (maybe because I knew) what was coming, I was weeping at the end.

I got a chance to chat with the actors, the accordionist, the director, Bryan Fonseca, and the stage manager, Dani Norberg, for a few minutes after the show. 

Fonseca told me that this is only the second bilingual piece that the Phoenix has done and that they are still learning how to approach this kind of work.  No one else in Indiana is doing it, so it is not as if they can learn from the precedents of others, either.

They assumed it would be relatively easy to learn the piece first in English and then simply switch to Spanish, but they are finding it is much more complicated than that.  The second language affects everything, from blocking to timing to gestures and more.  Learning the Spanish version has been as demanding as learning a whole new play.

In fact, they decided to treat Thursday night’s performance as a dress rehearsal of the Spanish version.  Fonseca said in his curtain talk that if anyone in the audience wanted a free ticket to come back to see the show again another night, they could have one.  Javier Vidal, from the Phoenix’ staff, followed along in the Spanish script during the performance, ready to provide prompts as needed.  Only once did one of the actors quietly say, “Line!”  Both men carried scripts for the final scene.  I predict that they will be completely off book very soon, though.

All this reminded me of why I love live theatre:  it is an organic thing, a thing that will not be rushed into birth, a thing whose excellence is worth working on, worth waiting for.

Speaking of “organic,” the set, designed by James Gross, provides a simple, earthy background to the action.  There is a huge moon at the back.  Sometimes the accordion player is silouetted against it.   About halfway downstage there is a sort of scrim made from basic wooden shapes that have the power of myths – circles, squares, triangles – joined by wavy lines.  Most of the action takes place in front of this “scrim,” but sometimes the actors move behind it, too.  There is a black “hill” at stage left made out of the stairs leading up to the theatre’s emergency exit.  The actors bring out a single bus seat or a wooden bed or some wooden chairs as needed to establish where they are.  The colors of the set are the colors of the desert: sand, slate, and red clay.  The glittering Italian-built 48-bass Monterrey piano accordion adds a touch of sparkle.

The sound effects are organic, too.  Fonseca and Wierhake told me that they decided not to use any recorded sound effects.  Wierhake composed a musical theme that he repeats on the accordion throughout the piece.  He also uses his accordion to help with atmosphere.  The accordion creates a suspenseful mood while the older brother is teasing the younger brother with a ghost story, for example.  It even provides the disconcerting sound of insects or other creatures when the boys are out in the desert.

Director Bryan Fonseca designed the lights.  I loved that during the scene changes, when the accordionist is playing under a softly focused light on stage, lights also come up gently at the sides of the audience, over the black-and-white photos of dramatic canyon scenes taken by Lamar Richcreek.  A related visual art exhibit is always part of any show staged in the Frank and Katrina Basile underground space at the Phoenix, but for this show the visual art and the performance art is especially well integrated.

It was also Fonseca’s idea to incorporate the accordion.  I.e., it was not part of the script’s instructions.  Fonseca told me in an email after I saw the English version, “It was my choice to add the accordion. The sound is appropriate and the idea of setting the play to music excited me. I was influenced by ‘corridos’ which are folk songs of the region…I also was influenced by a Rogers Waters song ‘Lost Boys Calling.'”

After Thursday night’s show, Fonseca told me that part of his preparation for doing a show is to keep a folder of ideas.  He has a folder going for each show in the theatre’s season.  A year ago, Wierhake had sent him a postcard saying he had arrived at the annual auditions conducted by the Phoenix and the Indiana Repertory Theatre after Fonseca had left, and could he audition another time?  Bryan put that postcard in his folder for “Our Dad is in Atlantis.”

“It’s like creating a scrapbook,” Fonseca said.  You gather bits and pieces that you think you will be able to use in the creation of a pleasing, powerful whole.

“Papa’ Esta’ en la Atla’ntida/Our Dad is in Atlantis” continues at the Phoenix through June 8.  Spanish performances are scheduled for Thursdays (May 29 and June 5), Fridays (May 30 and June 6) and one Sunday, June 1, 2008.  English performances are scheduled for Saturdays (May 24, May 31, and June 7) and two Sundays (May 25 and June 8.)  Please call 317-635-PLAY to make a reservation. 

Single tickets for all Spanish performances are only $15.  Single tickets for all English performances are $25 for people 25 years and older.  Tickets for people aged 24 and younger are only $15.   There is free parking on the street.

The Phoenix Theatre is an Equity Theatre.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

4 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Our Dad is in Atlantis/Papa’ Esta’ en la Atla’ntida” at the Phoenix”

  1. Hi Hope – I’d never thought about being able to see a play in both English and Spanish. Very cool (stupid word I know, but it’s all I can come up with at the moment.) I’ll have to look around and see if anyone’s attempting it in the SF area. Great post. Fun having a photo, too. Big hug, b.

  2. Thanks very much, Bethany! I’ll take “cool” – I agree! I hope the Phoenix is able to continue to do a bilingual production every year.

    Thanks for noticing the photo, too! I confess I am just DELIGHTED with myself for figuring out how to get it up there. Ned had shown me how to re-size photos using Flickr, but that was all I remembered. But I figured out all by myself how to post a photo in WordPress and make a caption appear when you run the mouse over it! Yay, me!

    One of these days I will figure out how to make the words start at the top edge of the photo – it may require another road trip to Ned’s house to consult with him! – but I am pleased with the results for now.

    I spent most of yesterday adding all of the photos that I had from previous shows, too. You won’t see them if you just look in the archives, but they show up when you click on an individual post. So far, I am on the publicity distribution list for only three theatres – Phoenix, Civic, and HART – but one of these days, too, I will try to convince all of the Indy theatres to include me when they do a publicity mailing.

    ‘Hope all is well with you, too. Big hug back! Thanks for reading my blog!

  3. Aren’t you clever, posting photos and all that! Wish I could work in a trip to the Phoenix for this. It would be interesting to see it in both Spanish & English. I’m fascinated by the way people from another country supposedly learn English from tv. Your experience seems comparable. You were able to pick out a few words, but stringing them together? I don’t know how it’s done.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Susan! I agree with you: learning a language WELL takes more effort than just listening to it on TV. On the other hand, I would probably know more Japanese now if I had watched more Japanese TV while I was living in Tokyo. Ah, well.

Leave a Reply