THE MAIDEN OF THE USED BOOKSBy Aristides Vargas
Translated by Sara Cardona
Director: Cora Cardona
Set Design: Nick Brethauser
Music Design: Cora Cardona
Song Arrangement & Music: Armando Monsivais
Costumes: Michael Robin
Stage Manager: Sergio Libo Rodriguez
Lighting Operator & Sound Operator: Michael Rathbun
Maiden: Marti Etheridge
Father: Armando Monsivais
Mother: Laura L Watson
Uncle: Edgar Estrada
Colonel: Juan Pedro Cano
Fajardo's Wife: Lydia Z. Enriquez
Vendor: Sergio Libo Rodriguez
Reviewed Performance: 5/14/2011
Reviewed by Mark-Brian Sonna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
You want to have a simple story told in a simple way.
You want to relax.
You want to have a pleasant time.
You do not like Theatre of the Absurd.
Do go see The Maiden of the Used Books if:
You want a complex story told in a complicated way.
You want to be jolted by provocative staging.
You want to think.
You like Theatre of the Absurd.
If you go, be aware that you may:
a)Love this play.
b)Hate this play.
The Maiden of the Used Books by Aristide Vargas almost defies description. The story is told via a Maiden/Narrator who collects used books. Is she 14? Is she 52? We never are sure. Her life is played out before us in episodic vignettes. Frequently within the space of 3 lines she is at times a young girl, a grown woman, or a woman in her 20's. She isn't real though. Or is she? She's at time simply a metaphor, as are all the characters in this play. At other times they are very real and human. Is she in a mental hospital? Maybe. Are all the events real or imagined? Both.
That is exactly the point of the play. This play is a viciously sarcastic and bitter commentary on the effect of a totalitarian government and its effect on the populace. The humor is dark, it is visually ugly, and it is loud. It is also performed at a machine gun fast and drill team perfection pace. You are never given time to think during the play. There is no intermission so you are never given a moment to relax. By the end you want out of the theatre. Then the rush hits you: you are exhilarated. Or you are aggravated.
I left exhilarated. My theatre companion left detesting the play.
We both agreed: it isn't easy theatre.
But since I'm the one writing the review, let me tell you why I think you should go.
Absurdist theatre is seldom ever done. And when it's done it frequently isn't staged and performed well. The Maiden of the Used Books is brilliantly executed.
Cora Cardona is the director of this piece of genius. She truly understands what playwright Aristides Vargas wanted to communicate. There isn't a single false moment in the play. She's also one of the only directors in town that I know that can pull off such a complex play and create a riveting evening of theatre.
The nature of the story, what little there is, is ugly. Ms. Cardona makes sure this ugliness is taken to the extreme. She wisely has Nick Brethauser create a visually ugly and minimal set. The ample use of music and sound is dissonant. The costuming by Michael Robin adds to the grotesqueness. The harsh lighting design by Jeff Hurst traps the performers in squares and rectangles of light so that they can be seen but harsh shadows cover part of their faces. Every minute or so the lights shift abruptly forcing the actors to move to different parts of the stage (or is it the other way around?). The overall effect is morbid. To execute ugliness to such a high degree requires a complete mastery of staging. In other words, the ugliness is visually stunning.
For actors, there has to be an inherent frustration in performing such a piece. Each character serves as an instrument to tell the greater story. There can be no true subtext and barely any motivation. All emotions need to be played clearly and with nary a transition. They also are required to be angry and within the next line or two happy. Method acting is useless in this, or is the technique of acting and reacting. Yet each emotion played must be honest and genuine even though there is frequently no rhyme or reason to it.
The cast, except for the Maiden, are required to play dozens of characters. This requires the actors to be extremely versatile. Each ensemble member does end up with a more prominent role, but the overall effect is that they are a cog in a greater machine.
Marti Etheridge plays the titular role of the Maiden. She is perfectly cast as the waif like girl/maiden/wife. She doesn't overplay her insanity. We want to feel for her but she never truly allows us in. She is a frustrating character and the one that guides us through her journey. By not completely allowing us to connect with her we in turn experience frustration which is the whole point of her character. She represents the frustration of the "people" against their dictators. If she makes the audience sympathize with her, versus simply empathizing with her, the play loses much of its thunder.
Armando Monsivais plays her father. We loathe him. We can't understand his reasons. He's manipulating, yet captivating. Mr. Monsivais executes the role flawlessly.
Laura L. Watson plays the mother, and later a hooker and then a nurse. I have seen Ms. Watson in other productions. This is her best performance. She transforms into each character believably.
Edgar Estrada plays the Uncle. He also is required to play multiple roles, from simple walk-ons to longer dialogues scenes. Each time he hit the stage I knew it was a completely different person.
The Colonel is played with a screeching voice by Juan Pedro Cano. He yells about 50% each one of his lines. It is grating to the audience. But so is his character. Yet he manages to still exude a charisma. You can see why he ends up become a leader. He at times almost makes us root for him even though he is the bad guy in this play. I say almost, because just as we start to warm up to him, his yelling kicks back in and we are pushed back from connecting to him. Outside of the Maiden, his is the next most complex role and he delivers it with much aplomb.
Fajardo's Wife is played with a caffeinated delicacy by Lydia Z. Enriquez. How can one be delicate and caffeinated you ask? Go see her performance. She's able to portray two opposite characteristics at the same time. Very well done.
Sergio Libo Rodrigez as the Vendor plays ominous quite well. He too is required to play a myriad of characters, each one distinct from the rest.
As someone that is bilingual I must commend Sara Cardona, too. She has done a brilliant job of translating this most difficult play into English. The play is quite poetic, and poetry is very difficult to translate without it sounding false. She captures the gifted wordplay of Aristides Vargas.
I must also commend Michael Rathbun who operates the lights and sound cues.
To aid in the chaos on stage, about every minute or so the audience is assaulted by either a light or sound cue or sometimes both, so it is imperative none are missed. None were.
This is about as perfect a piece of theatre as you can see, if you like Absurdist theatre. If you've never been to a play like this but have been curious to experience it then I urge you to go. If you like safe theatre that is easily understood, then this play is definitely not for you. You cannot leave the theatre without feeling something: either exhilarated or unnerved.
I must applaud Teatro Dallas for bringing to the stage a play that most other theatres would shy away from. It takes guts to mount a production like this and it is a very gutsy show. All I could think of as I was writing this review was a line from All About Eve stated by the character Margot Channing played by Bette Davis:
"Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."
Teatro Dallas, 1331 Record Crossing Rd, Dallas, TX 75235
Runs through May 29th
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:15 PM and Sundays at 3 PM
Tickets are $12-$20. For tickets or info go to www.teatrodallas.org
Or call 214-689-6492