With Teatro Vivo's enjoyable revival of the bilingual comedy 'Petra's Cuento,' no matter what language the characters are speaking, it's a language you'll understand
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., July 28, 2006
Dougherty Arts Center, through July 30
Running Time: 1hr, 40 min
Cuento is Spanish for story, those individual webs of words we all enjoy so much. It's an appropriate title for a play that was, at least for me, so much about language.
That I feel compelled to say about a third of the play is in Spanish should indicate my assumption that I'm writing for a primarily English-speaking audience, and that's a cultural assumption. It could be read as a warning that, unless you speak Spanish, you may not understand this latest Teatro Vivo production and thus, not be able to enjoy it, but that's certainly not the case. You may not understand every word being said, but you'll understand everything that's happening. Rupert Reyes, the writer, co-director, and one of the actors in the show, understands how to write comedy. More importantly, he understands how to present it.
The first image of the play is of grandmother Petra examining her breasts for lumps. It appears that she has cancer and may be dying. Of course, life goes on, and soon after she's in bed with her husband Rafael. It's their anniversary, and it's pretty clear what they've been planning, which includes references to Rafael's "little buddy." But all Petra wants to do is call her daughter Carmen and see her grandchildren. Eventually, she manages to manipulate a visit to care for the children while Carmen and her husband Michael go on a trip, but the children are spoiled and bratty, with little love for the Spanish language, which isn't spoken in their house, or especially for Mexican food. Unbeknownst to all, the spiteful, evil Red plans on kidnapping the children to try to force Michael, who works for the district attorney, to release his brother from jail.
It's comic melodrama in the tradition of Neil Simon. Funny scene piles on top of funny scene, and the actors often deliver the material in exactly the way a pair of comedians would, standing on the stage presentationally, their bodies facing the audience while they speak to one another. One-liners drop like candy from a piñata, many of them from Reyes as Rafael, but constantly from Beatrice Fuentes and JoJanie Segura, who simply and joyously play two of Petra's friends. And while the kidnapping part of the story could easily fall flat, J. Jimenez-Smith and especially Rudy Sandoval, as the kidnappers, are the same kind of righteous, bumbling idiots you find in films like Home Alone, and just as entertaining.
Embedded in this cultural comedy is a message about choice. We make time for things that are important to us. We can't depend on others to teach us on their own; we need to want to learn. I enjoyed the production tremendously, but there were moments when I found myself thinking that I wished I spoke Spanish because I wanted to enjoy it even more. While some of the more dramatic moments don't quite come off, enough do, and the comedy always works to perfection. These are not professional actors, but as a group they have a great sense of self and an accomplished sense of comic tempo. Whatever language they're speaking, it's a language I understand.