When they function at their best, summer theater festivals are infuriating. They bring us the most exciting works from beyond New York—then take them away quicker than you can hail a taxi on the New 42nd Street. Two packed houses of cognoscenti were lucky enough to see the sassy, savvy De Monstruos y Prodigios (La Historia de los Castrati) before the company was on its way back to Mexico. The critic, happy to be able to enthuse over something for a change, is left to feel like she’s licking her chops in front of the starving.
The blame belongs, of course, to the stupid economy of American arts funding, not to the International Hispanic Theatre Festival (which continues through June 30). Nor to playwright Jorge Kuri, director Claudio Valdés Kuri, or the six actors who sing, romp, and trash their way through three centuries of musical and philosophical ideals. (The stupid economy of American arts also explains why such rich work seldom emerges out of our own theaters: The troupe spent nine months developing the piece.)
The monster-prodigy at the center of the performance is the castrato, the singer whose testicles were surgically removed before puberty to keep his voice from deepening. His pop-star status, from the beginning of the 17th century until the last known castrato of 1914, derived from “a disturbing sensuality that makes men shudder and women swoon.” His crystalline soprano and thick body produced a sexual indeterminacy that provoked the lust of both men and women—history’s first groupies. Through the figure of the castrato, De Monstruos y Prodigios looks more generally and deeply at Western culture’s growing discomfort with ambiguity and the irrational, offering an unsettling—and hilarious—critique of the French Enlightenment.
Jean Ambroise Paré, the barber-surgeon who performed the first castrato operation in the early 1600s, serves as a guide through the 90-minute extravaganza. Played by two bewigged actors sharing a single gilded and ruffled coat, this two-headed, pompous bumbler personifies the mind/body problem. Along with a maestro seated at a candle-bedecked harpsichord, Jean Ambroise gives orders to a loin-clothed slave they call, simply, “Negro,” and violent singing lessons to a young castrato. Meanwhile, they both praise and revile Quirón, the 4000-year-old centaur—a scraggly-bearded, bare-breasted actor who stands behind a stall that keeps him visible only from the waist up as he gnaws on bones and humps the air.
The castrato—played by Javier Medina, whose treatment for childhood leukemia left his larynx undeveloped—grows from beaten-down student to diva-destroying sensation. Throughout the course of the play, he sings some half-a-dozen arias in an always serviceable and sometimes soaring soprano, wearing ever more elaborately silly costumes. The last is a baroque take on Wagner: gold breastplate over exaggerated puff-out sleeves and pantaloons, and a helmet sprouting three feet of tricolored plumes.
In the meantime, the slave Sulaimán (Kaveh Parmas) takes an increasingly active role. In a side-splitting encounter with the castrato, he is handed a whip with which to whack him during the performance of a lament. As the castrato sings and weeps, motioning frantically to Sulaimán to take his cue, Sulaimán runs nervously back and forth, unable to bring himself to hit the source of his enchantment. In his own moment in the spotlight, he sings a sort of muezzin’s call, chanting gorgeous quarter notes until brutally silenced by Jean Ambroise. Soon this Noble Savage is declaring his rights, declaiming in French and insulting the audience. Napoleon enters to rescue history, blasting a cannon at all the baroque finery, and pitching the performance into an all-out food fight with the audience. Rationalism wins the day: The castrato is outlawed, Jean Ambroise splits into two, and the entire company is left looking like lost Beckettian souls.
While the line from 17th-century bel canto to contemporary rap may be less than direct, tracing it out may explain, at last, why those guys grab their thangs so often. Jonzi D, in his high-energy combo of rhymes, dance, and turntable scratch titled Lyrikal Fearta, was checking on his as if Jean Ambroise were waving a scalpel in the wings. Even so, the British rapster offers a clear critique of machismo in hip-hop.
Part of the three-week Hip-Hop Theater Festival at P.S. 122, Lyrikal Fearta is a series of choreographed vignettes. In one of the most pointed and charming, Jonzi D silently dances his way through a narrative of a young man’s tragic romance with guns; in the most beautiful, he performs a duet with a male partner to patter about brothers needing to cover each others’ backs. The dancers fall sideways, forward, askew; they’re caught and returned to their feet each time by the other.
It’s the movement—athletic, poetic, precise—that makes this work stand out. The rhymes are obvious. So are the politics (police brutality, racism, and shooting each other are all bad). Sometimes they’re even dumb. Freemason conspiracy? Please.