Barksdale Theatre’s Boleros for the Disenchanted wants very much for you to believe it is a sweet comedic romance deftly woven with moments of sadness and harsh reality. Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it doesn’t. But it definitely makes you think.
Boleros for the Disenchanted wants very much for you to believe it is a sweet comedic romance deftly woven with moments of sadness and harsh reality. For the first act, set in 1950s Puerto Rico, Jose Rivera is successful in sticking to this formula. Young Flora tries to maintain her belief in the purity of love as she navigates her way through the sadness caused a broken engagement with Manuelo, the town lothario. She eventually finds her way to Eusebio, a young military officer who seems to offer her a version of the world that matches with her own idealism.
Along the way, the audience glimpses life in small town Milaflores, and the picture is bleak. Poverty reigns, men are defeated and jobless, helpless to stop their children and their country’s natural resources from being exported to America. Women accept abuse and infidelity at the hands of their husbands as their particular lot in life. Lives are complex – a man comes home drunk and ready to beat his wife, but winds up weeping in her arms. Parents want better lives for their children, but the chances they desire no longer exist in Puerto Rico. There is a constant undercurrent of sadness and surrender, but Flora and Eusebio manage to temper all the depression surrounding them with the intensity of their shiny, perfect, young love.
The second act of Boleros delves into melodrama and lacks the nuance of the first; absent are those sweet, comedic moments that made the first act’s misery palatable. Thirty-nine years later, Flora and Eusebio are in the twilight of their marriage in rural 1990s Alabama, a place not much different than the Puerto Rico the couple tried so hard to escape. He is bed-bound, she, his caretaker. They have suffered together through children, poverty, infidelity, and illness but do not manage to escape the bitterness inherent in such struggle. The telegraphed unraveling of their carefully constructed illusion is uncomfortable and sad and too predictable. I suspect Rivera wanted the audience to reflect on the sacrifice of devotion, but he succeeds only in making the final years of marriage seem like something we should avoid at all costs. In the end, their love endures, but it’s impossible to know if the cost was worth it.
The cast does their best to provide the depth that the source material lacks. Patricia Duran and Jorge Alberto Rubio (who play dual roles as Flora’s parents and later as the adult Eusebio and Flora) are the standouts in an excellent group. Dual casting can be tricky, but these two handle their separate roles with graceful aplomb, especially in a play with many quick scene transitions and a sometimes distracting guitar soloist. Rubio in particular is hysterically funny and heart-breakingly sad, machismo and vulnerability all at once. Carmen Zilles, who plays young Flora, perfectly captures the idealism and petulance of a teenager girl caught up in her first love. You will alternately want to hug her or send her to her room, so she clearly hits the right notes. Also of note are the beautiful sets and costumes, which invoke exactly the right atmosphere, whether it’s falling-down tropical paradise or a depressed Southern military town. Boleros is produced in conjunction with the Latin Ballet of Virginia, and the audience is treated to a haunting opening dance number. During intermission, dancers also provide an education on their style of dance and the nature of the Spanish bolero, a type of song referenced in the title of the play.
If you’re looking for a feel-good experience, Boleros for the Disenchanted will likely disappoint. However, you are guaranteed to leave the theater with a lot on your mind. And there’s something profound in any work that leaves you thinking instead of laughing.
(Photo by Aaron Sutten)