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Live Indoor Theater Returns to D.C. After Nearly Eight Months


The big drama about The GALA Hispanic Theatre's season opener "El Perro del Hortelano (The Dog in the Manger)" is that they're presenting it at all.

It's the first indoor theatrical production to open its doors since the pandemic plunged the once burgeoning D.C. theater scene into darkness nearly eight months ago.

While there have been some Zoomed (and telephoned) attempts at theater in the meantime, the essential connection of live actors in front of a live audience has been missing for most of the year.

GALA was named one of just six venues allowed to open in the district in an experimental basis, and the only theater. Under strict guidelines it calls for no more than 50 people in the building, all of them masked and socially distanced. Since that number also includes cast, crew and staff, that leaves just 25 people allowed in to see a performance, representing just 9 percent of its former capacity.

In addition to a substantial renovation, increased cleaning and placement of hand sanitizer, the theater installed a new high efficiency air filtration system, circulating air six times every hour. The audience has to reserve tickets online, provide information for possible future contact tracing and have a temperature check at the door. In addition to the production credits is a shout out to the COVID Tracking Partner.

And once inside? I was surprised to find that the usually clever sets at GALA, this one by Clifton Chadick, is entirely enclosed in plexiglass. We're not watching Zoom for once, but we are still watching a box. Thanks to a tilt, and the lighting of Alberto Segarra, it's not completely noticeable as, say, the plexiglass at your drugstore cashier checkout, though the actors, unmasked but using individual microphones, sometimes use the transparent wall as an intended plane to push against.

According to director José Zayas, however, the glass cage is meant to modernize the notion of a gilded cage for its protagonist Diana (Soraya Padrao) is living in as a noblewoman in Naples, trapped amid her privilege and several servants with whose affections she toys. It also provides, Zayas says in director's notes, "a hothouse atmosphere."

The play originated almost back to the bubonic plague of Shakespeare's time. The 1618 work is one of the best known of the 500 some plays written by Félix Lope De Vega Carpio, the prolific writer from Spain's Golden Age of Baroque literature.

GALA's world premiere adaptation by Spanish playwright Paco Gámez takes the already modernist philosophies of love in the play and adds some zip. The comedy of manners concerns Padrao's Diana, who dismisses the flamboyant suitors of her own class (Delbis Cardona and Oscar Ceville) in order to concentrate on her own handsome secretary (Ariel Texidó).

She knows she can't marry someone beneath her class, but she's still jealous of his romance her lady-in-waiting (Catherine Nunez). Hence, she's like the fabled Perro del Hortelano, or Dog in the Manger of the title - a creature who won't eat cabbage, but won't let any one else eat it either.

There is a heat between Padrao and Texidó such that you expect the plexiglass to steam up at times, but there are also so many couplings and uncouplings - declarations of love immediately followed by dismissals - that you almost think none of these characters take the time to truly know their own heart.

Like most works at GALA, it uses a top notch cast of actors who are often well known from stage and screen from their home countries of Spain, Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela, just to name a few origins of this septet. And some, like the delightful Luz Nicolaś, are familiar from many past performances at GALA.

Padrao in particular is striking, pausing before some of her lines as if to dramatically check her passions before she speaks.

What's consistently dazzling in the production are the costumes by Jeannette Christensen - one aspect of theater I realized I never realized missing so much during the shutdown (maybe because we've been home in sweats for most of the year).

The various turns of event are like a partner-changing comedy from the Bard, and director Zayas keeps things light despite the dialogue that touches on 17th century class differences but dwells more often on philosophies of love, jealousy and desire you might expect in a morality tale by French film director Eric Rohmer.

Some of the dialogue in the translation by Heather McKay goes by quite fast on the supertitles flanking the stage. And those hoping the entertainment would make one forget for a moment the raging pandemic outside, may be reminded of it simply because the mandatory masks reliably fogging eyeglasses (and obscuring key subtitles).

As great as it is to see artists unleashed to do their thing live once more, there is an overriding new criterion for criticism as the third wave rises. It is not, would this be a fun night out? It is, instead: Is this worth risking my health to see? Such decisions, like of love, must be individually made.

Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: Luz Nicolás, Soraya Padrao and Catherine Nunez. Photo by Daniel Martinez.

"El Perro del Hortelano (The Dog in the Manger)," in Spanish with English subtitles, runs through Nov. 22 at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, 333 14th St NW. Tickets at 202-234-7174 or online.

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