My first show of 2013 was the opening performance of the rolling world premiere of “Guapa” by Caridad Svich at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.
“Rolling world premiere” means that three theatres in the National New Play Network are producing this play within a few months of each other, in one coordinated effort. I know from sitting in on the NNPN’s annual conference when it was held here in Indy a few years ago that the artistic directors for these theatres are picky, passionate people, so when they select a new play to produce out of the many that they have considered, I’m always interested in sharing the risk by seeing it.
I’m glad I saw “Guapa.” I had a variety of responses to it, some of which bloomed within me in a sort of timed-release way (hah!) and I’m going to write about them below without worrying about spoilers. So should you see this show? Of course you should! Go see it and let it speak to you in its own way. Don’t dawdle, though. It runs only two more weekends and the final two performances are in Spanish.
Initial Reactions: Plot? Women’s Soccer?! Tears over Language…
The night I saw “Guapa,” my first reaction as we applauded the actors at the end was “Huh.” I had enjoyed the show, but it didn’t seem that very much had happened. A gifted but troubled girl named Guapa dreams of playing professional soccer. Her aunt doesn’t want her to. The girl “flies” off a building one night when drunk with her cousins and almost dies. When the girl recovers enough to speak, the injuries have jarred her into speaking her truth, which eventually triggers her aunt into remembering her own adolescent dreams as well. She turns to supporting the girl’s dreams instead of discouraging them. The girl recovers enough to once again have a shot at a career in pro soccer.
Much of the plot happens off stage; what happens on stage are the characters’ reactions to what happened as they go about their daily lives, sharing a crowded home and trying to earn their livings and/or go to school. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when, as in this piece, there are all kinds of artistic embellishments going on onstage. If “Guapa” were a novel, I would say it is character-driven rather than plot-driven, and beautifully, dreamily done.
I also thought, “Is there really such a thing as professional women’s soccer? Who knew?!” I guess I lead a sheltered life in a lot of ways, but I truly had never heard of Hope Solo or Marta of Brazil. On my way out of the Frank and Katrina Basil space downstairs at the Phoenix, I skimmed the posters in the hallway that talked about male soccer players and I wondered if the playwright had made up the women. But no, in the upstairs lobby there were posters about the women, too. And when I Googled the two women’s names just now, there they were in Wikipedia! Guapa’s heroes are beautiful, talented sportswomen that exist in real life.
In the lobby, I also wrote down how to spell “Quechua.” The scene in the second act when Guapa recovers enough from her recent injuries to speak her truth about past abuse had moved me to tears. It wasn’t the revelation of Guapa’s secret – or not just that, anyway – that moved me but the fact that Guapa’s initial words were in Quechua language, the language of her ancestors. Her secret had been buried so deeply that she needed a deeply buried (at least in the USA) language to express it. I was also moved that her cousin LeBon was there to interpret her words to the rest of the family. LeBon was flunking out of community college but succeeding in his self-directed studies of Quechua via YouTube videos, which was the only “course” available. I was touched on behalf of the language that people cared enough to keep it alive and ready to be used when needed. The speakers matter, the listeners matter, and the words themselves matter.
Aggh! I’m not explaining this very well, but that scene was the “power scene” for me as an audience member. I’m tearing up again, writing about it.
I went out to my car that night and wrote:
“The playwright takes an old story – abused teen dreams of escaping her life – and makes it new by a) setting it in contemporary, multi-cultural, rural Texas, b) infusing it with almost-forgotten words and images of indigenous cultures, c) folding in the world of professional women’s soccer, and d) adding hints of magic.”
But as I was falling asleep that night I thought, “This play is just as much about the aunt as it is about the girl.”
Many Kinds of Beauty, Many Kinds of Art
Lying in bed the next morning, I replayed the opening, slow-motion soccer dance in my head for the pleasure of it. I marveled at how well the choreographer (Mariel Greenlee) and Guapa (Phebe Taylor), lifted by another actor (Adrian Gomez), had captured and portrayed the exhilaration of soccer on that tiny stage. Later in the play, Guapa and Adrian Gomez – now as her brother, Hakim – kick the ball around in a real-time way, too, that was delightful and made me want to join them. Soccer was one of the few sports I loved to play as a non-athletic youth but I hadn’t thought about that in years. I thank this show for helping me remember the feeling of freedom and joy that I felt as I ran up and down the field years ago.
I also thought some more about the richness of the layers of art in this show. This is not A Musical, but music is an important element in that the aunt, Roly (Patricia Casteneda) sings folk songs to relieve stress and the young people all talk about the contemporary music they like, sometimes bursting into song themselves. There is also a catchy “soundscape” of recorded music. It was built by Tim Brickley on an original design by Jim Kliengfus at the Borderlands Theatre in Tucson, Arizona, which is one of the other three theatres giving “Guapa” its rolling world premiere.
Tim and Jim also built the “videoscape” – a series of sepia-toned shots of the surrounding town and fields and more that play on the walls of the set at certain times. The videoscape establishes and amplifies the larger setting outside this particular home, conveying the juxtaposition of dust-bowl-y, historical vibe and contemporary, graffiti vibe. This is a play with roots but it is not an historical piece.
Other visuals include graffiti tags on the plastic lawn chairs around the kitchen table. LeBon (Guero Loco) is a graffiti artist. He was tagging the Quechuan word “yaku” (water) on the outside of a building when Guapa had her accident. The set itself (designed by James Gross) is both home and soccer field: it is cradled by life-sized goal nets and strung with dancehall lights.
In addition to the slow-motion soccer dance there is a scene in which LeBon’s and Hakim’s frustrations with each other get the better of them and they brawl, very convincingly. The program does not list a fight choreographer so I don’t know who to credit for this fight but it is another example of the variety of kinds of polished theatre craft that enrich the story.
The fight scene is beautiful in that it is so believable, and that brings me to the whole idea of beauty. “Guapa” means “beauty.” Guapa says she does not feel beautiful herself but she accepts the name anyway, maybe as something to aspire to. However, the beauty she loves most is not the beauty of physical features but the beauty of soccer, of “futbol.”
An iPad, Some Candles, and a Glass of Water
The soccer ball is an important prop in this show, of course, but three other props set off ripples in my mind that are still going on:
When Guapa’s other cousin, Pepi (Magdalena Ramos), pulled out an iPad (or some other kind of tablet device) to do her homework, I was surprised. It put the play firmly in the present, which was effective but…wasn’t this a financially struggling family? How could they afford an iPad? Single parent Aunt Roly scolds LeBon for missing work by saying something like, “No one in this house gets to sit around. Everyone works or goes to school or both!” Hakim works in a diner and Guapa is still (barely) in high school.
But Pepi is studying astrophysics in college and hoping to apply to a prestigious graduate school, so of course such a gifted student would need, and I hope would be able to get through a scholarship if she couldn’t afford it herself, the tools she needs to succeed. Nowadays that includes a computer of some sort.
That thought triggered a reminder of some of the issues that we’re trying to figure out in my day job as a librarian: how do you make information, stories, and other knowledge available to the whole community if publishers will only license their content rather than sell it? How can Pepi save money by reselling her books after her classes are over? On the other hand, how does quality content get produced if no one is willing to pay for it? Who is producing the Quechua instruction videos that LeBon is watching on YouTube? Who is supporting them financially?
Ripples and ripples of thought came from that one little iPad in the show.
More ripples: Guapa says she takes inspiration from St. Therese of Lisieux, also known as “the little flower.” Candles in tall glass cylinders bearing pictures of several saints flicker on little shelves around the kitchen window, so I think Roly must find inspiration in saints, too. Religion, and disagreements about religion, isn’t a main theme for the show – or if it is, I didn’t pick up on it – but it is there in the conversations that come up, adding another layer to the characterizations. I don’t usually light candles as part of my own religious practice – or think much about specific saints, for that matter – but I felt comforted by Guapa’s relationship with St. Therese and curious about how the candles fit into Roly’s daily life. (For example, does she blow them out when she leaves the house or are they supposed to be left to burn themselves out like in a church?)
And finally there are the ripples that come from Guapa refusing a glass of tap water when she needs to take medicine after the accident. Actually, no one wants to drink the tap water. One of the things that Hakim and LeBon fight about is how to deal with the issue of polluted water. LeBon calls himself an eco-warrior because of his tagging. Hakim sneers that he is only a “slacktivist.” Environmental issues are not the main focus of the play any more than religion is, but they enrich it by helping to show the complexity of the characters and the world in which they live.
It’s the same world in which we all live. Really, “Guapa” is about a whole family and a whole community. In many ways, it is about me and mine, too.
It was fun to see destination actor Phebe Taylor bring a new role to life. I totally believed that she was a gifted young soccer player. (And by the way, you say her first name like “Phoebe” or “feebee” but there is no silent “o” in the spelling.)
It was also fun to see the work of four completely new-to-me actors (Patricia Casteneda, Guero Loco, Adrian Gomez, and Magdalena Ramos.)
- Producer, director = Bryan Fonseca
- Assistant director = David Andrew Graham
- Technical director – Nolan Brokamp
- Lighting design = Laura Glover
- Stage manager = Chelsey Wood
- Costume design, props = Ashley Kiefer
As I write this, there are only six more chances to see “Guapa” in English at the Phoenix Theatre, plus two chances to see it in Spanish. For more information, please visit their website: www.phoenixtheatre.org. To make reservations, call their box office: 317-635-PLAY.
‘See you at the theatres…
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.
Photos in this post were taken by Zach Rosing and are used with permission.
©2013 Hope Baugh