Exclusive: Ektor Rivera Talks Playing Juan Peron in EVITA Made for the Outdoors
--with additional reporting by Gilbert Kim Sancha
In playing the historical character of Juan Peron in Jamie Lloyd's pared-down, rock-concert staging of Evita, Ektor Rivera is striking a balance between the extremes. The contentious three-term president of Argentina, in the actor's own words, was "manipulative, ambitious, sexual, cruel, and sadistic man, but still, charismatic and intelligent leader."
In a parallel manner, Peron - who inspired Peronism, a movement based on his political ideologies - has been, divisive, yet continues to draw support from both ends of Argentina's political spectrum.
In Evita, Rivera becomes Lloyd's reinvented persona of Peron: a surprisingly youthful "charismatic Juan Peron" (The New European) who "enjoys enticing chemistry with Eva [Peron]" (The Stage), played by US-based actress Samantha Pauly.
Rivera, who previously played Emilio Estefan in On Your Feet on Broadway, portrays Peron at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until 21 September. Evita, which showcases the timeless work of Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (book and lyrics), is Rivera's UK theater debut.
"I've been fortunate to play two characters that have changed Latin American history," says the Puerto Rican-born actor. "One of them was Emilio Estefan, whom I have always admired and [who is] a good friend. And Juan Peron, a character with a fascinating story that's still alive through other voices in Peronism."
Juggling tasks: he's a working actor and also an acclaimed visual artist in his home country. The road to playing the controversial figure had its fair share of challenges, which includes working - in person - on his largest art exhibition in Puerto Rico and auditioning for the role - also in person - in New York City on the same day.
He fondly recalls: "I did a self-tape audition from Los Angeles [where Rivera is currently based] and then I was selected for a callback in New York. Back in April, I was organizing my largest individual art exhibition in Puerto Rico, so, unfortunately, I had to cancel my callback.
"As soon as I arrived in Puerto Rico, my agent and manager told me the director [Lloyd] still wanted to see me and was willing to wait for a few days. I remember arriving in Puerto Rico and by the next morning taking another plane to New York to have my audition in front of Jamie, and returning the same day to Puerto Rico to continue the crazy process of my art exhibition."
But oh boy, his hard work did pay off! "To my surprise, they called me a few days later confirming I'd be playing Juan Peron in Evita, in London!"
A fascinating tidbit: Rivera first experienced Evita as a piece of musical theater when he saw the show...where else but in Argentina, about 4,000 miles from Puerto Rico. "I felt it was a complex and heavy piece, but on the other hand, I recognized the undeniable genius behind the music and lyrics."
He has seen Evita several times since then - on Broadway and in Puerto Rico. His fascination with the Perons has led him to, literally, studying the political history of Argentina through books, documentaries and films.
In doing Evita, "the most complicated part for me was the beginning of rehearsals, trying to detach myself from my studies of the history of the real Peron and making space for a new leader that corresponds to Jamie Lloyd's new vision, something very different from what I've seen before with this character," he says.
Unfamiliar Evita Made for the Outdoors
From the get-go, visionary director Jamie Lloyd - who is currently helming Harold Pinter's Betrayal on Broadway - had an unconventional Evita in his "surrealist" mind; that's exactly how Rivera best describes his director's artistic flair.
He says: "Working with Jamie is one of the most enriching experiences I've ever had as an actor. First of all, Jamie has a very risk-taking mind when it comes to directing. I compare his brain to a surrealist painter who's able to enter the psyche of the audience with great skill, using all of their senses. Secondly, he's an actor's director who allows us to propose and create in the moment, and - based on that first instinct - he shapes his direction. The result is incredible.
"I loved the way I was directed by him, it was a very cinematic proposal, where the expressions are small and deep. His mind and motivations are exposed at their fullest to the audience. This gives the audience insight into a leader who achieved his goals and won the love of a whole country."
Since its premiere on 21 August, Lloyd's Evita has been knocking it out of the park! The show's co-creator, Tim Rice, is seemingly pleased with it. "Well, I went to see Evita in Regent's Park and it was terrific. Unlike any version I'd seen before. Most of the brilliant company weren't alive when we wrote it. Not sure I was," Rice says.
Further, Time Out writes, "Forget everything you know about Evita: this one properly rocks. Gone are the romanticised shots of sun-soaked South America, sliced out are the filler numbers clogging the score and deleted is the simpering, blonde starlet. Instead, Lloyd's production wipes the gloss off Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical, creating a pumping, sped-up Evita edged with dirt, rust, and grime."
Rivera, together with his co-stars Samantha Pauly (Eva Peron) and Trent Saunders (Che), loves that fact that this revival of Evita has been a great collaboration. "All the actors perform their characters with full commitment. Samantha and Trent, for instance, give their sweat and tears to achieve their goals as Eva and Che, and that's admirable," he says.
"The characters are directed, exploring the most extreme emotions of the human experience but still maintaining the truth. I also love the choreography of Fabian Aloise - it's just incredible. The costumes are not what you expect, but, combined with the unique step-based stage, the lighting, sound, pyrotechnics and the setting at the Open Air Theatre (performing while the sun is falling) are just fantastic. Every detail gives this production a unique taste. Also, the 18-member band, directed by Alan Williams, is incredible!"
Evita, which employs eclectic musical styles in its score - but mostly rock - recalls the life and times of Eva Peron, the second wife of Juan Peron, a former military man, and three-time Argentine president. Its story follows Eva's early life in the slums in Buenos Aires: her rise to power, together with her husband; her reported charity work; and her eventual death from cervical cancer.
Originally released as a concept album in 1976, Evita made its premiere in London's West End in 1978, winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical. Its Broadway premiere a year later won the Tony Award for Best Musical - a first for an imported British production.
After countless worldwide productions and the release of numerous cast albums, as well as a film adaptation, starring Madonna (Eva Peron), Jonathan Pryce (Juan Peron), and Antonio Banderas (Che), in 1996, Evita returned to London in 2006.
It toured the UK in 2013-2014 and played at the Dominion Theatre in September-October 2014. Evita at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre is the latest iteration of the popular musical.
For a visiting actor, it's all been an extraordinary journey. Rivera opens up: "With this experience, I'm growing as an actor and I will leave with a very positive impression of this side of the world.
"Working in London with this company not only continues to define my character and skills as a performer, but also opens my mind to other artistic capabilities as a visual artist. Vocally, this character helps me expand my possibilities - as I'm naturally a tenor playing a character with a strong baritone range."
Before the curtains are closed, Rivera has one wish, though: "I would definitely have loved to see our version as part of the audience, because it's presented in a very dynamic, entertaining, and unpredictable way. For me, that's what real art is about."
Photos: Marc Brenner