Rehearsals - October 2011
Image Andrés de Gabriel.
© Teatro Español.
In Madrid's Matadero, the American actor and the Spanish actress open the play in which the Chilean Arial Dorfman relates the stark story of a woman who murders her children.
So as not to reveal the plot of Purgatorio, I've soaked this text in hypnotic ink, so that when you've finished reading it you will forget that the secret names of the characters might perhaps be Jason and Medea. You will not forget, on the other hand, the following information: it was written by Ariel Dorfman, author of Death and the Maiden, was directed by Josep Maria Mestres at the Matadero, and its stars are Carme Elias and Viggo Mortensen, in a return to the stage which has given rise to an understandable sense of anticipation.
Purgatorio is an original and profound melodrama: Anouilh could have penned it. Or Sartre. Or, in one of her higher flights, Duras. The topic of the play is not so much blame as the search for redemption. The place in which the protagonists find themselves is reminiscent of the Jewish sheol, in which souls pass through a tunnel of spiritual cleansing carried out by extremely expert professionals. It doesn't deal with preparing oneself to see God, but rather with being able to see God within one's own self.
In the first act, a woman who killed her children is interrogated, affably but intensively, by one of those experts. In the second, which takes place at a previous time (or a parallel one, to be decided), a [female] interrogator questions the murderer's lover, who appears to be cured of his hatred. To prove it, he will have to cleanse the soul of the one who hurt him the most, and whom he betrayed. An almost impossible provision of this mission: if he reveals the slightest trace of his identity, the hard drive will be erased and the whole process will have to begin again. The third act is, obviously, the encounter between the two, but with this bonus track of information which, I insist, you will forget as soon as you return to your daily routine. In the three acts, there is a knife on the table. A carnivorous knife, as Umbral would say. What I'm telling you is the skeleton; what is important is the flesh that Dorfman and the actors put on it.
This flesh, which traps and thrills [us], could warm us much more. Purgatorio borders on something big, if it weren't for a few chilly drafts. Dorfman tends, at times, to a certain pomposity of language, with "poetic intentions" ("so young, I, and so young the morning") and some affected expressions: the characters don't "vuelven", they "retornan", don't "ven" but instead "divisan", don't say "tal vez" but rather "acaso". [Translators' note: the words in each word pair have similar meanings, but the first word of each pair is simpler, the second more literary.] These are occasional nuisances, but since the script is beautiful and tight, they're more noticeable.
I found Carme Elías a bit unconvincing in the first act, in which her character behaves like an inmate from the nymphomaniac's ward (or, if you prefer, like one of Tennessee Williams' crazy women) in marked contrast with what we hear - that that savage woman still has the power to pierce through you and melt you with a glance. The actress, then, still doesn't seem to have made the role her own. The bridges, the seams of the mental associations from a hyper-agitated brain are showing and Mestres calls for (or permits) superfluous gesturing, as if at every step she had to support her words with actions - actions that distract us and that often don't seem to show a mental ordeal, but rather the fear of a director or actor about the meanderings of the text. At times, also, the underscored self-consciousness of playing a great tragic character seems to ring faintly. Perhaps that is due to the fact that Carme Elías exhales a luminosity and a calm that don't permit, at the moment, the emergence of the dark side of the character except in the final third [act]. Not a small thing, but it's not enough.
If Viggo Mortensen seems much more convincing, it´s because, to begin with, he manages to surf over the rhetorical encrustations in the text. It cannot be easy to say naturally things like "When they´ve extracted my true face from my most hidden interior." In his actor´s profile - what a novelty - an extreme sensuality, a latent danger and an intense purity coexist. No actor likes to be compared to others, but he makes me think of a cross between the power of the young Kirk Douglas (chin included) and the innocence of Woody Harrelson or John Savage. There´s a great sobriety in his work, although he, too, overuses gestures to express what he feels. For example, the tendency to hunch to show his fragility and the weight he is carrying looks affected and detracts from the power and the mystery.
In the second act, where Carme Elias treads more firmly, a superb passage, as well written as it is served up, shines brightly. The account, told at night, of the amorous rapture of the couple, which Mortensen sets aflame like a José Alfredo Jiménez corridor, [is] pure tequila, dry and aromatic. [Tr. note: The corrido is a popular Mexican narrative song and poetry form. Corrido lyrics are often old legends and ballads about a famed criminal or hero in the rural frontier areas of Mexico. Some corridos may also be love stories.] Shortly after, by contrast, there is a fragment (the vase episode) which arrives when the situation is beginning to revolve around itself a bit. When we say that a play is too long, we often mean that there are parts in which our attention wanders because there is a lack of tension in the text or in the acting. I think that that episode (which aims to be a little like the equivalent of Rousseau's ribbon) could be shortened and the piece would have more punch. [Tr. note: In Confessions, Rousseau once falsely accused a servant girl of giving him a ribbon to avoid getting punished for having stolen it.]
The third act, when the cursed lovers meet again, is a beauty. Carme Elías throws herself into the horrifying confession and reaches her emotional height because she captures the duality of this devastated and indomitable woman who wants to begin anew but would return to doing everything she'd done, and Viggo Mortensen is unsurpassable in humanity, contained pain and buried passion. Friday, the night of the premiere, there was huge applause for the acting pair, for Ariel Dorfman, for Josep Maria Mestres and for the entire stage crew.