Thursday, May 12, 2016

Mis Papás at The Cultch

This year's rEvolver Theatre Festival opened last night with a production of rice & beans theatre's Mis Papás. The play is based on the story of writer and director Pedro Chamale Jr's parents, Stella and Pedro Sr. In a series of short, non-chronological scenes we learn about how the couple met and subsequently immigrated to Canada from Guatemala, only to have their lives upended by an illness and life-threatening coma that leaves Pedro Sr deaf and in need of near-constant care from Stella.

Uniquely, the show unfolds as a boxing match, with ringside seats arrayed about The Cultch's Historic Theatre stage. The actors, having spent part of their rehearsal process training at the Eastside Boxing Gym, spar not just verbally, but also physically, taking turns in donning the two pairs of bright red boxing gloves and throwing jabs that land with greater or lesser force depending on the context. When Pedro Sr and Stella are in the ring together, Pedro doesn't stand a chance, and not simply because Manuela Sosa, the actress playing Stella, is taller than Edwin Perez's Pedro; as played by Sosa, Stella reveals herself to be a woman of indomitable will, someone who bluntly tells her husband that she is always right--especially when it comes to his own well-being. That doesn't mean, however, that the burden of care is easy for Stella, or that cracks don't emerge in the stoic facade she presents to hospital staff. In a bravura scene the physical and psychological toll Pedro Sr's illness is taking on Stella is made clear as Sosa skips rope while reciting a litany of Pedro's symptoms, the drugs he's taking, and the food items she's daily consuming from the vending machines in the hospital; Sosa does not miss a beat on either count.

As for Perez's Pedro, his submission to Stella is not played with wounded masculine pride. Apart from one scene when, following his discharge from the hospital, Pedro complains to his doctor (a lanky Derek Chan) about not being able to continue working as a mechanic owing to his deafness, cliches of machismo are scrupulously avoided in this play. Instead, we see that Pedro's lack of fighting chance with his wife is a result of the fact that he is completely and utterly besotted with her. Likewise, Stella's stubborn refusal to give up the primary care of her husband--even when, in conversation with his nurse (Anjela Magpantay), it emerges that Pedro has bitten her--and her confidence that he will get better comes from a place of absolute devotion. More than anything else, and in spite of its intensely physical dramaturgy, this play is a love story told with the utmost tenderness.

It is also told bilingually, in English and Spanish, and without the benefit of surtitles. Just as Pedro and Stella must deal with the estranging medical jargon surrounding Pedro's illness--bits of which are explained to us via Chan and Magpantay in exchanges played out to the audience--so are we deliberately put in a position of not always understanding. As Chamale Jr explains in his notes to the play, that position reflects not just the journey his parents are now on as they move into the uncertain future of Pedro Sr's inevitable decline, but also the immigrant story writ large. Why shouldn't we, then, be made to experience something of this unfamiliarity as well?

It's a question Mis Papás asks with intelligence and grace.


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