Meet Me in Buenos Aires

A quartet of Argentine plays delves into dark corners of a volatile culture

By Aaron Mack Schloff

Let's say you're at a play, and you hear a bit of tango. You think, "Oh, how typical and flavorful in this Argentine play." But on stage, in a cabin, on an arctic frontier at the edge of nowhere, the discovery of a retarded orphan boy in the snow is ripping an incestuous family apart. The time is the future—or the past. The tango takes you momentarily to Buenos Aires bordellos with its air of fated, fleeting romance, then further, evoking all the half-knowledge you've ever had of Argentina—gauchos, desaparecidos, Evita. But the play features none of this—just a cabin in the snow. So where is this Argentina, exactly?

This was the challenge put to audiences for Buenos Aires in Translation (BAiT), a four-play festival at New York City's P.S. 122 this past November, that paired four porteño (Buenos Aires resident) playwrights, mostly in their thirties, with U.S.-based directors of the same generation. The project's genesis came from Colombian Felipe Gamba, but developed fully under creative producer Shoshana Polanco (an Argentinian), with enthusiastic support from Vallejo Gantner, then newly installed head of P.S. 122. The playwrights visited New York in May for performances of selected scenes, after which the translator of all four works, Jean Graham-Jones, went to Buenos Aires to refine the translations. The authors made return visits in November, when the full shows were presented in repertory at P.S. 122.

But before the Argentine writers came to New York, I wanted to meet them myself. Buenos Aires in April is just putting summer to bed. The city, for all its expanse, is strangely compact and walkable, despite narrow sidewalks. Nineteenth-century European longings expressed by the Haussman-like radial avenues of the downtown are now supplanted by a uniquely Argentine sense of architecture and design, as at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires or the shops of Palermo. There are unique fantasies of wealth, power and freedom: the polo player, the gaucho and estanciero (gentleman farmer), the government torturer. The economy is almost five years past the currency devaluations and bank restrictions that wiped out many people's savings, but surging real estate and tourism sectors have helped restore Argentine pride.

Theatre is either "on Corrientes" or independent of it, with little cross-pollination. On Corrientes were giant revues and the stray American musical—Los Productores, anyone?—and a small selection of straight plays, ranging from the sentimental two-hander Visitando al Sr. Green (Visiting Mr. Green) to the Filumena of Neapolitan Eduardo de Fillipo, and a few native works.

The independent scene is full of strange new life. In two theatres around the old Carlos Gardel hangout, the Abasto Market (now a mall), are the spaces Callejón and Camarín de las Musas, which during my stay presented no fewer than three works by one of the BAiT playwrights, Daniel Veronese. At Callejón, a droll selection of monologues is still selling out its single weekly performance six years in; at Camarín de las Musas, Veronese's gender-reversed but non-drag adaptation of Three Sisters, with almost no scenography, sound or light and in contemporary dress, was the peak theatre experience of my visit. Back at Callejón, the weekly performance of Veronese's Mujeres sonaron de caballos (Women Dreamt Horses), about three brothers and their sisters at a family dinner gone violently wrong, started at 11:30 on a Saturday night—which, coupled with jet lag, might explain why the story zoomed over my head.

"The first draft of that play took a year," writer and director Veronese told me at a café in the Almagro district, "but I was writing various works, three or four at the same time. The actors were available for experiment." Veronese disavowed any political message, only admitting a violent thought: "So as not to kill people, I write this work," he said with a kindly expression. But my greater understanding of the tortured family dynamics in Women Dreamt Horses, one of the plays selected for BAiT, would have to wait for New York. Meanwhile, I had three other playwrights to talk to.

Lola Arias, whom I met at a café in Palermo, was full of hope and trepidation for the New York trip—hope garnered from a visit to the U.S. six years ago but trepidation after an exhausting visa process in which the bangs in her official photo were declared illegal by the State Department. Her play, La esquálida familia—the one set on an arctic frontier—is a holiday from sociopolitical concerns, but not a sunny one. It's a fable studded with other fables, ranging from Bible stories to the unsolved mystery of Kaspar Hauser. "It was like the first family or the last family in the world," she says. "There is tragedy, the Bible, science fiction, but everything is mixed." The family speaks strangely, but by design. "How can we give the best bad translation?" she asks, raising the first of many translation issues.

The length of a play's tether to the real world is also at issue in Federico León's Ex-Antwone, the only work of the four that had not been produced anywhere, not even by the writer/director himself. It's a dreamlike reverie of a young man trying to connect with a girl who has Down syndrome, but has had her face replaced with a normal one. León has been mentored by Robert Wilson and works regularly in the international circuit. The future of his play in New York seems to be a subject of friendly disinterest on his part—or perhaps modesty masks the depth of his engagement. "My works change with the actors," says León, "and are at the service of the director."

Of the four BAiT playwrights, Rafael Spregelburd seems the most international. He has toured through Europe, Latin America and Australia, and has also translated plays from English and many European languages into Spanish (including the works of Steven Berkoff and Wallace Shawn). His own play Panic is, among the BAiT selections, most closely rooted in a place and time: Buenos Aires in 2002, right after the devaluation crisis. A mother desperately searches for her late husband's safe deposit box key, so she can fund an escape to Miami. Searches for essential keys, sometimes in plain sight but never found, are woven into Panic's web. The play was a way to talk about the still-resonant crisis while avoiding explicit politics. "Let's deal with the problem in a theatrical way. Let's not just repeat the news," was Spregelburd's urge.

One strange fact about Argentines is that, generally speaking, their ignorance of our contemporary theatre is almost as great as the reverse. Local awareness of American theatre runs through Williams and Miller but has barely reached Mamet and Shepard, confirms La Nación critic and cultural bureaucrat Carlos Pacheco. The lone exception seems to be writer/director Richard Maxwell, whose House captured attention at the Buenos Aires International Festival in 2001. "It's a theatre of melancholic robots—it's like the anti-American," says Arias. "No one is acting, nothing is happening—it's great!"

The flip side of her praise for Maxwell is the standard view of American theatre as commercial and artistically arid. Because they are frequently invited to European festivals, Argentine artists are more familiar with European theatre. As a cultural prospect or source, the U.S. has fallen out of fashion. Would the encounter of BAiT change their views?

Back in New York, the American directors paired with the plays are eager to meet their authors. Brooke O'Harra is proud but nervous that her company, the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, was chosen to do "the big play," Spregelburd's Panic. Director Jay Scheib's European trajectory is almost as extensive as that of Veronese, the Argentine he's paired with. Having seen Veronese's production of Hamletmachine at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Scheib admires the writer/director's "rare ability to put on stage something that is symbolic of his generation. He has captured something essential about his time (which is also our time). It will continue to resonate, I think, for all time."

Recent Yale School of Drama grad Yana Ross, who was assigned to Arias, was born and partly raised in Moscow. "I have developed a visual scope through directing film and TV—text is important but it's not an impetus," she says, noting that her production of Elfriede Jelinek's Sleeping Beauty had a text only nine pages long. The fourth and most junior of the directors, Juan Souki, moves between grad school at Columbia and his native Venezuela. León's play, for Souki, is "a set of memories with an astonishing sense of humor" that connects to a surreality of Latin American life. Souki is still trying to get a sense of León, but likes his voice, at least via e-mail. "Cariñoso, amable (affectionate, friendly)," says Souki. León's works change enormously in the rehearsal room, but this one has never been staged. What will happen? "I don't know," says Souki. "We've just started dating."

The May visits are a mix of intense connections and sometimes no connections at all—Veronese and Scheib, for example, are not able to meet. But in each case, the Argentines work with the American actors, and the results are good and clear. The climactic scene of Veronese's Women Dreamt Horses, in fact, begins to make sense to me. León's Ex-Antwone, on the other hand, still seems cryptic and drowned in sound and light.

Over the summer, everything changes. On her annual visit to Buenos Aires, translator Graham-Jones, a City University of New York associate professor of theatre, struggles to turn each script into playable English. Arias's play employs a bad-on-purpose style of speaking; Veronese's is colloquial but not as topical or locally specific as, for example, the Uruguayan vacation memories of León's characters or the very specifically porteño details of Spregelburd's work. Questions abound: Should a play be set in Buenos Aires or New York? Use pesos or dollars? Call a bank by its Buenos Aires name, or substitute a New York name, or just be called "the bank"? For each cultural or linguistic translation issue, Graham-Jones offers two or three options in the early drafts, which make the scripts strange to read but engage the directors in the translation process.

By September, differences are evident both in the translation and staging. Veronese's Women has grown intensely physical. While the Argentine production I saw was closely set around a dinner table, the American actors are on their feet, slapping each other around an open stage. Arias's La esquálida familia has acquired fake fur costumes and even tango music. The directors disavow the goal of presenting anything specifically Argentine. "It's not ethnic," says Scheib. "It's just a play."

By November, when the play-wrights return for final rehearsals and the first performances, the blur of malbec wine and empanadas on the pair of opening nights can't erase the pasted-on smiles of authors who see their work irretrievably different than they had ever imagined. In P.S. 122's downstairs space, Arias's play—which by now has surpassed all attempts at literal translation of its title to become A Kingdom, a Country or a Wasteland, in the Snow—is a succession of abstract set design, bold stage pictures, odd changes of light and bursts of music from tango to Henry Purcell, into which the family disintegration story is somehow subsumed.

Upstairs, in O'Harra's production, Panic has been cut for length as per festival requirements, but the live musical score of O'Harra's collaborator, composer Brendan Connelly, is still struggling to find a role. Because of the time limitations of rehearsals in New York, capturing the full emotional spectrum of the play proves to be an impossible task. Much of what remains seems to be a comedy about renting apartments.

Finally, Souki's Ex-Antwone has stripped away the sound and light to create a strangely realistic setting for a brilliant post-adolescent romantic dream, energized by some superbly engaged acting. León, seeing his own show, is sanguine, even pleased.

All of the authors observe that Veronese, who was still touring his version of Three Sisters in Spain at the time, would be pleased with Women. Under Scheib's direction, Women has morphed into something between acting and boxing and contact improvisation. The violence that was suppressed on stage in Buenos Aires is physicalized in the New York show, varying wildly from night to night.

Even as it succeeds as theatre, aspects of cultural translation are inevitably lost. In Women, the pregnant woman with a gun pointing at her husband at the play's close has just learned that her husband and his brothers, years ago, murdered her parents and adopted her. In Argentina, children born in prison to desaparecidos (people "disappeared" by the state) were often adopted by their torturers. In New York, this Greek tragedy-level backstory is just a sensational fiction.

Something else not on offer is any familiar view of Argentina. While foreign tourists in Buenos Aires who wanted to see gauchos without leaving town could attend the Broadway-priced horse pageant Opera Pampa, Buenos Aires in Translation deliberately offers nothing of the kind. The issues that dominated the playwrights' subject matter in the previous generation—the desaparecidos, for example—have receded to the background.

This leaves audiences bereft of what most people want from cultural tourism—a confirmation of their prejudices. And while BAiT's primary goals, according to Polanco, were first allowing the cultural writer/director encounters and secondarily engaging the academic and theatre communities, there remains the general audience. Some are excited, others flummoxed by unusual forms, extreme actions and a lack of cultural reference points.

"It was a phenomenal project," says Gail Bulman, associate professor of Spanish at Syracuse University, who designed an entire course around BAiT and brought her class to see the plays. "There is a lot of violence in Argentine theatre. It has to do with political as well as theatre history. Even when it's humorous, there are dark moments in the cultural reality."

Press reactions to the shows, and the festival itself, varied wildly. "It's difficult to accept this unrelenting brutality as anything but a skewed representation of the Buenos Aires theatre scene," wrote the Variety critic. "Never Mind Language. Excess Is Easy to Translate," stated the New York Times headline in a dismissive review that nevertheless suggested that the opposite might be true.

"It was refreshing and retador, ah, challenging," admits Souki. "The world is full of specificity," he says of León's very personal play, "but how do you get into that world?"

"My fear," León adds, "was that the sly humor that the work puts forth could not be understood, but on seeing it with the audience I felt that it was understood more than I'd been imagining."

Scheib is equally pleased with Women. "It was a radical shift for me—no video, no sound. I concentrated on staging the action. The only real rule was no one went anywhere unless they needed to, so the arrangement of people in the room could be radically different from night to night. Some nights it could be melodramatic and some nights it could be dark." It was a gamble. "I won most nights," Schieb says.

"I think that what happens on stage does not come only from the word of the author," says Veronese. In each staging, and each culture, "something is lost but also something is discovered. The result then should always exceed expectations, not show us only something that we imagined at the first reading."

Ross and Arias had more distance from each other's interpretations. Ross says she enjoyed the luxury of having nine months to develop her concept, but "I cannot say we were in synch." On opening night, Arias reacted positively to some choices, negatively to others. "Yana did a great job with imagery and choreography that for me was attractive to see," says the writer. "For me, it was strange that when the text says characters kiss or touch, to have this replaced with movements miming [but not showing] the action."

The most fraught encounter was between O'Harra and the highly opinionated Spregelburd. "I like Rafael, but the play was problematic," admits the director, detailing a succession of dramas over cuts, acting, scheduling and budgets. "We learned a lot from him."

"This is a hard play to do," writes Spregelburd from Buenos Aires, with a tone of despair. "I'm interested in storytelling at a very basic level, so that the whole complexity of the worlds created by words can really unravel. I also heard many New Yorkers were shocked by the violence of the plays, of their topics and treatments. I got the impression, when hearing to these arguments, that American society, as a general abstraction, is a lot more naïve than I was willing to accept."

BAiT is not over. This fall, the translations will be published by the Martin E. Segal Theater Center and distributed by TCG Books. Polanco is hoping to present the first stage of BAiT's sister project, Nueva York en Traddución, in which New York writers will be presented in Buenos Aires.

But, after that, the initiative ends. "I don't want this project to become institutionalized," she says. "I chose intense plays, and one thing that came up on the negative side is, 'Oh, this all about puking and incest and dead people,' and on the positive side, 'This is physically intense, passionate, engaging theatre.' This project speaks to my own personal taste as a curator and as an artist. These are the things that Argentine theatre artists write about."

Aaron Mack Schloff is a New York City-based playwright and a frequent contributor to this magazine.