Imagine you’re sitting in a black box theater in the dark, eagerly awaiting the beginning of a play starring a real-life soap opera actor from your childhood, when suddenly, familiar music emerges (the opening song from “Cañaveral de Pasiones”) and you’re transported to a time where you actually watched soap operas with your mom, and fantasized about the actors on the screen. This is basically what happened when I was an audience member on opening night of the Teatro ECAS production of Jardin de Otoño (Autumn Garden), a play written in 1983 by Diana Raznovich (an Argentine playwright who self-exiled in Spain during Argentina’s military dictatorship).
In this production, Francisco Gattorno (who was in the aforementioned soap opera) is both actor and director, and the object of obsession and idolatry for the two main characters in the play. Griselda and Rosalia (played by Emeyra De Jesús and Juana Díaz on the night I attended) are middle-aged, unmarried women who have lived together for a long time and spend every afternoon waiting for actor Mariano Rivas to appear on their TV (they love him so much that they have his picture framed and prominently on display). Mariano, who plays Marcelo the mechanic in the soap opera Jardin de Otoño, brings joy, purpose, and fantasy into the lives of Griselda and Rosalia. To understand the premise of this story even more, it’s important to explore the context of the setting further.
La novela de la tarde (the afternoon soap opera) is such a cultural staple of daily life in Latin America that no matter where one is sometime after midday, one is sure to find people glued to their television or phone, while the rest of the world fades away. In my own experience living in Bolivia, no matter what errand I may have wanted to run at 2pm, I couldn’t because everything comes to a halt. At first glance, Jardin de Otoño centers the importance of the novela in the lives of Griselda and Rosalia, and perhaps even pokes fun at the immature and magical thinking the protagonists engage in. However, as the play progresses, a shift in power and a change in depth occurs; comedic monologues, declarations of love, and petty arguments between roommates evolve into moments of empowered action as the two female leads realize they have agency and can actually change their circumstances, ask for what they want, and discard anything that doesn’t fit their needs, including the man they seemingly idolize. As the storyline unfolds, the actresses playing Griselda and Rosalia go from depicting naïve and perhaps overly dramatic spinsters with an unfulfilled longing, to clever, poised, and even cunning women who will do whatever it takes to get what they want.
Without giving too much away (because you can still go see the play this week!), this comedy turns the tables on gender, sexuality, and fame when Mariano appears in the living room shared by Griselda and Rosalia. Hilarity, discomfort, changing dynamics, and some pretty great costume changes all lead to climactic moments in this production. Juana Díaz and Emeyra De Jesús, much like their characters, grow in depth and stature as the play progresses and when Francisco Gattorno steps onto the stage, the story coalesces and is elevated into something more than just a comedy. His emotional range shines through and is the perfect backdrop for the moment when paradigms shift, and power is wielded by women rather than men. I can honestly say that in those pivotal scenes a real-life soap opera was unfolding before me, with a live audience laughing, gasping, and exclaiming while the action took us all on a trip. I became the third roommate and lived vicariously through those on stage and it all happened in Spanish (with English supertitles on a screen). I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that a theater like Teatro ECAS exists in our arts community. As Francis Parra Guerra, executive artistic director, has said, theater is a conduit to the discovery of self and of the vastness of Latin-American cultures. Jardin de Otoño certainly delivers that experience.
During opening weekend there were over 300 audience members in attendance, most of them subscribers and supporters of the Spanish language theater. Your last chance to see Jardin de Otoño at Teatro ECAS (in their brand-new building at 679 Valley St, Providence, RI) is this week, April 27–30. Francisco Gattorno, Juana Diaz, Varsovia Acosta, Emeyra De Jesús and José Luis Suazo will reprise their roles once more. Tickets can be bought in advance by going online and using the promo code “AVANCE” to save $10 off the total ticket price.For more information on Teatro ECAS, follow them on Instagram @ecas_theater or visit their website: teatroecas.org.