At the talkback after Raices Theatre Company’s performance of Desde el Puente: Christmas Edition at the Manny Fried Playhouse, Rolando Martin Gomez, co-founder of the company along with Artistic Director Victoria Perez, responded to the question of why he is an actor with the following: “Our love for all of you to get to know our culture."
The ten short plays of Desde el Puente (From the Bridge) offer glimpses into Puerto Rican culture centered around Christmas traditions, family love and strife, and separation of families through deportation and incarceration. There is a great deal of laughter mixed with anger and tears, as happens with all (or at least most) families during the holidays.
The first play, El Quarto Rey, tells the story of the Fourth Magi, the one from Puerto Rico who never quite made it to Bethlehem due to unforeseen circumstances involving a sandstorm, a curse, and immortality. Rolando Martin Gomez overplays his telling of the tale to his young daughter a bit. His performance would be more effective with more nuance and less frenzy. Fifth-grader Amara Gomez makes her acting debut as the daughter. She is delightful as she pretends to sleep and mimics her father’s actions behind his back.
In the last play, Parranda 101, we are treated to a survey course in Christmas partying Puerto-Rican style by Dr. Chen Cha played with great gusto by Maria Perez-Gomez. She takes us through the elements of the partying itself, wherein a group of carolers goes to the home of an unsuspecting family and demands to be let in. She introduces us to party folks we have all known, like the over-the-top partier, and the critic, and the bah-humbug type. The ensemble does a terrific job of switching characters, singing and dancing.
In between, there are stories of family loss and tragedy. Suffering can be even more excruciating during the holidays.
A young woman, played by Alexia Rose Guzman, mourns the death of her grandparents and refuses to celebrate in La Vida Segue. She meets them in a dream. Her grandfather (Victor Morales) lovingly comforts her and encourages her to enjoy her life and experience the richness and beauty it has to offer.
A Brief Three Minutes, written by Anthony Alcocer, exposes the national disgrace that is our immigration policy. A young couple and their son prepare for a visit with his parents, who were deported back to Mexico when he was a child. They are allowed a three-minute visit in a controlled environment by the immigration authorities. Smirna Mercedes-Perez is outstanding as Epifania, the mother. With her limited English, her disdain for the authorities is palpable, but she is careful not to let it interfere with being allowed to see her son and meet her grandchild for the first time. When they all meet, their tearful reunion is heart-breaking.
Innocence, written by Marta Aracelis, is delightful as two young girls play together and talk about their families. Melinda Capeles-Rowe is outstanding as she tells tall tales about what is happening as her parents plan to split up.
There are stories of drunk dads and drug-addicted mothers, and how we cope with the people we love who cannot stop hurting themselves and those around them. And of young people searching for their identity. Through it all, we see the strength and resilience and humor that brings people through hard times, as in Espiritu Inquebrantable, which takes place in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria.
Lest one-language folks be concerned that you will be left wondering what was just said, know that the writers and directors have done an excellent job of interspersing Spanish and English, and you will understand what is happening.
There were a few glitches, some of the writing could have been tighter, and there was a tendency to lean toward the soapy at times, but they are minor in comparison to the strengths of the storytelling and acting in this production. It is a good opportunity to be entertained and at the same time learn about Puerto Rican Christmas traditions – or if you already know them, to enjoy seeing them on stage.
Desde el Puente: Christmas Edition plays until December 17th, Thursday through Sunday, at The Manny Fried Playhouse.