Ambitious Outdoor Stage Effort by
A pleasant evening with music and nourishing food for thought awaits all who attend A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, this year’s outdoor production of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. However, this ambitious and deceptively complex adaptation fails to soar into sustained flight, despite the admirable and intermittently successful efforts of the many talented artists who have invested themselves in it.
Adapted and expanded by Nilo Cruz, last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner (for Anna in the Tropics), from a short story by the highly regarded Columbian 1982 Nobel Prize laureate for Literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there are simply too many conflicting elements and shifts in tone in the course of this 90 minute intermissionless evening to allow an audience to focus in on and fully savor the rich individual elements at hand.
Marquez is sometimes referred to as the father of magic realism. He sees the magical tales which were passed on to him by his grandmother as stories to be believed and written about with the same casual tone and acceptance as ordinary everyday events. It is in this manner that Cruz tells Marquez’s tale.
The setting is a small fictional village on the Caribbean coast which 100 or so years ago was isolated from the world when, after an extended rainstorm, all roads to it were covered with verdant growth.
Brother and sister Momó and Fefé observe a very old man with enormous wings crash land onto the chicken farm of their parents, Pelayo and Elisenda. Although the winged creature, who is very weak and bedraggled, cannot speak, Momó and Fefé are able to see his words by looking in his eyes. As the old man cannot remember his name, the youngsters having seen him descend from the heavens, name him Afar. Convinced that he is an angel, they hide and shelter him in a wardrobe in their room.
Their parents quickly discover the concealed Afar. They cannot read his eyes and become confused and fearful. As a result, they lock Afar in the coop with their chickens.
Robin De Jesús as Momó, Gregory Mitchell in the title role and
Danielle Larracuente as Fefé
Pelayo and Elisenda have a third child, a baby who is dangerously ill with fever. Elisenda fears that Afar is the angel of death come to take her baby. At other times, she dares hope that Afar will use his heavenly powers to save it.
Word spreads that an angel has landed on Pelayo’s farm, and the villagers seek contact with Afar in order that he might answer their prayers for cures for their illnesses and fulfill their desires.
To the chagrin of his children, Pelayo assumes ownership of Afar, cages him in, and charges the villagers to see him and/or present their requests to him. Pelayo removes feathers and an eyelash from the decrepit Afar in exchange for cash payments. Pelayo even charges Don Galante, the village doctor, to draw blood from Afar. The analysis of the blood sample convinces Galante that Afar is indeed an angel.
As A Very Old Man moves toward its climactic events, the silent Afar has fallen into a kind of stupor, leaving all prayers unanswered, and a new carnival attraction (a young woman who has been struck by lightning and turned into a pathetic spider-woman) has seized the imagination and patronage of the villagers.
There are many harsh, adult and controversial ideas here. The pious villagers want the benefits offered by their heavenly angel. However, they are self centered and content to see him abused and in pain. It would be reasonable to interpret Afar as a stand-in for the suffering Jesus. Having gotten this far, it is difficult not to conclude that what we have here is a stinging attack on the Roman Catholic Church represented by the rapacious Pelayo.
Director Bonnie J. Monte writes in her program note that “[the play] sends different messages to different people.” While it is true that there are any number of ideas one can draw from this rich work, its attack on institutional religion strikes this corner as sharp, clear and undeniable.
Playwright Nilo Cruz and Monte have added trappings to the Marquez story which set up expectations that we will be seeing a warm, folkloric, child friendly fable. Momó and Fefé are adorable, sweet and loving children who are central to the play. However, they are inventions of Cruz who do not appear in the Marquez story. Although they add an effective dimension to the story, their early presence does combine with other elements to raise inappropriate expectations. One of these is Cruz’s decision to add the arrival and the presence in the village of the moon, represented on stage by a large balloon and a lithe woman who rides through the village on a blue bicycle.
Songs are an important aspect of this play with music. In and of themselves, they are mostly delightful and provide pleasing entertainment. The score composed by Nicholas Kitsopoulos begins with a lovely song delineating the setting and characters, which is sung alternately in Spanish and then English. This provokes the feeling that we are being lovingly welcomed into a warm, exotic community. Later on, we are treated to the stirring and robust song "Café," in which several young women share their dreams with us.
Justina, an older woman, having seen Afar in his landing pattern, is ridiculed by the local law. She goes to the front edge of the playing area, where children have been encouraged to lounge on blankets, and appeals directly to a youngster to acknowledge that she knows that Justina is not crazy. This is an extremely charming, smile-inducing moment.
The rub is that all of these elements misdirect our attention away from the very weighty story at hand. Add the lovely outdoor setting and the pretty storybook set by Carrie Mossman (brightly and beautifully lit by Steven Rosen), and we have a good number of incidental delights which are not organic to the heart of the play. (Unfortunately, the set is designed so that a crucial late scene is obstructed from the view of all but those seated most centrally.)
Mark Elliot Wilson is right on the mark in that he neither softens Pelayo nor deprives him of his humanity. Saundra Santiago is moving and appealing as Elisenda.
Gregory Mitchell works wonders without words in the difficult title role. Emilio Delgado ("Sesame Street"’s Luis) is a striking stage presence in the dual roles of the narrator and Don Galante.
The cast, several members of which play two or more roles, is strong throughout, and makes for a very believable Caribbean community. Particularly impressive are Yolanda Bavan, Jessica Pimentel and Selenis Leyva.
The three-piece orchestra consisting of guitar, bass and percussion under the direction of Kris Kukul provides beautiful music.
Director Bonnie J. Monte has elicited fine performances doing full justice to each aspect of the play.
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings itself cannot support all of the sometimes conflicting intentions of its author. It is probably worth knowing that the play was commissioned and first performed by the distinguished Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis. In trying to be true to both Marquez and the Children’s Theatre Company, it appears that Cruz has put himself in the uncomfortable and difficult position of trying to sit in two chairs at the same time.
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings continues performances through July 11 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Outdoor Stage on campus at the College of Saint Elizabeth, 2 Convent Road, Morristown, NJ; box office: 973-408-5600; online www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings adapted by Nilo Cruz from the short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; directed by Bonnie Monte; Cast: Gregory Mitchell (Afar); Mark Elliot Wilson (Pelayo); Danielle Larracuente (Fefé); Robin De Jesus (Momó); Saundra Santiago (Elisenda); Emilio Delgado (Narrator/ Don Galante); Yolande Bavan (Justina/Bonafacia); Lazaro Perez (Juan Jose/Agracelio); Selenis Leyva (Woman Who’s Been Crying/Worker); Alfredo Narciso (Showman; etal.); Jessica Pimentel (Spider Woman/Worker);Magaly Roig (Girl With A Box of Prayers/Moon); Michael Earle (Selim Al Din, etal.); Mary Floyd (Worker); Drew Valins (Townsperson).