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Chicago by John Olson

Boleros for the Disenchanted
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of Up

Boleros for the Disenchanted
René Rivera and Sandra Marquez
Just before the first act closed, this seemed the perfect comedy for a balmy summer evening. Two young Puerto Rican lovers, Eusebio and Flora, just married after a "meet-cute" introduction and whirlwind courtship, declare their intention to migrate to the U.S. mainland from a town with the lovely-sounding name of Miraflores. Their plans are decried by the bride's earthy but loving parents, who bemoan that land of "drug addicts, prostitutes and snow!" This first act seems a light but insubstantial romantic comedy, until the last minute when there's an ominous tableau. In it, the young lovers are seen heroically in silhouette above their older selves 40 years later in a modest-looking American apartment, with the older version of the husband in bed. The message is clear that the couple's future is not as romantic as it promises to be on their wedding day. It's only when we return for the second act that we learn Eusebio is bedridden due to complications from diabetes and his caretaking is the chief responsibility of wife Flora.

The acts are so different one might be tempted to consider this play by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter (The Motorcycle Diaries) José Rivera as two one-act plays. The first act is a charming comedy that gently satirizes Puerto Rican traditions of courtship and marriage, while the second act is a deeply touching examination of what the vow of "until death do you part" can entail. For Eusebio and Flora, old age is a long and painful wait before the inevitability of death.

Act one is set among brightly colored Puerto Rican homes and inns in Linda Buchanan's set. The action begins as Flora learns her intended, Manuelo (Felix Solis), has been unfaithful to her. Elizabeth Ledo shows Flora's anger, along with a comic desire to punish Manuelo sufficiently to make him into a good husband. Her parents (Sandra Marquez and René Rivera), whose marriage has a violent side, are not so sure Manuelo can be rehabilitated and are humiliated by the fact that his indiscretions have become common knowledge. Fortunately, Flora meets Eusebio, a soldier immediately smitten with her, who scoops her up before Manuelo has the chance to reconcile with her.

In act two, Flora and Eusebio are played by Marquez and Rivera, who were Flora's parents in the first act. After having raised nine children on Long Island, they moved to a small town near an Army base in Alabama to be near their soldier son, but they have been living alone since the son was deployed to Germany. The set is now a minimal, rather monochromatic representation of a very ordinary house. Flora is the sole caregiver for Eusebio, who's lost both his legs due to untreated complications from diabetes. She bathes, feeds and turns him over, sleeping on a small cot next to his bed. She tries to keep him happily occupied watching Mets games on TV, and manages to be active in the local Catholic church.

Flora's commitment to the marriage is unquestionable, and she agrees to counsel engaged couples from her church, starting with solider Oskar and his fiancée of two months, Monica. The horny young pair (Joe Minoso and Liza Fernandez, who play the younger Eusebio and Flora's party girl cousin Petra in act one) get a lecture on the full measure of commitment demanded by marriage, and witness a case in point when they meet the double-amputee Eusebio in his bedroom. Here the play wears its heart on its sleeve. This might be unforgivable if not for the way author José Rivera and performers Renéé Rivera and Marquez so gut-wrenchingly later earn our empathy for Flora and Eusebio. To avoid giving too much of a spoiler, suffice it to say Eusebio's condition becomes much worse. A sympathetic nurse (Ledo) and an exceptionally strong and stern priest (Solis) help the couple ponder options of life and death. Here, it becomes evident that the seemingly disparate acts need each other. The weightier second act would lack impact if we hadn't been introduced to the couple as young adults.

René Rivera plays older Eusebio with amazing understatement. Though bedridden, Eusebio remains strong and relatively free of self-pity. Marquez convincingly conveys emotions including loneliness, rage (upon learning of a lie by her husband from years earlier), hopelessness and determination. If this play should ever receive a Broadway production, these are two roles that could attract and showcase high-wattage actors.

Director Henry Godinez skillfully handles the different demands of each act. Act one is mostly comic and the actors deliver the author's laughs naturally. His humor is based on the characters' ability to hold conflicting emotions with ease—to simultaneously love and want to kill someone, for example. The second act has a good measure of comedy and comic relief, and Godinez's direction blends it with the events that are deeply sad, but never pitiful. For, as difficult as the lives of these two immigrants has been and as painful the circumstances of their old age, we're in awe of their commitment to each other and can only hope for that sort of love and support when we enter those years.

Boleros for the Disenchanted will be performed at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through July 26th, 2009. For tickets, visit the box office, www.goodmantheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.


Photo: Eric Y. Exit

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-- John Olson



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