New York

Merián Soto and Pepón Osorio, Wish You Were Here

Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris

Wish You Were Here, a rambling performance spectacle about Puerto Rican popular culture by Merián Soto and Pepón Osorio, inhabited the lobby of the Philip Morris midtown headquarters the way the displaced Caribbean culture occupies New York City: like colorful scraps of confetti blowing around the edges of a glass-and-steel civilization. It was presented as an evening of “video, dance, music, and performance set in a Puerto Rican social club,” with a decor by set designer and sculptor Osorio consisting of balloon-festooned cabaret tables, cartoonish palm trees and cabanas made of patterned fabric, freestanding oversize umbrellas, and a blow-up of a touristy postcard. Through such “festive” means, the performance tried to establish a playful ambience, but it could not counteract the cold, harsh quality of the enormous space—the 42-foot-high ceilings, glaring bright lights, and long, boxlike shape—which reduced this simulacra of a nightclub to a feeble, washed-out gesture. The performance itself, modeled after Latin nightclub variety shows (a ’40s format that is still popular today on cable TV), had better luck at stirring up fun-filled moments, but it too suffered from an underpowered concept.

Reflecting the Puerto Rican population’s culturally divided roots—i.e., part American/Northeast-urban, part Latin/rural-island—Wish You Were Here displayed a split focus, meandering through modes ranging from sincere celebration to hokey sendup. Some aspects were simply examples of traditional Puerto Rican culture (a trio of strolling musicians, a dynamic four-man percussion band, and a Caribbean dance demonstration), and certain segments were modern hybrids (such as the vignette of post-Modern dance by choreographer Soto rearranging Latin-American dance steps and gestures), but much of the evening was played for laughs. There was good-natured comedy, as when a couple learned dancing to one of those unintentionally hilarious instructional recordings of the “It’s Fun to Samba” genre. There were also moments of sharper-edged satire—most of these courtesy of the energetic mistress of ceremonies, Carmelita Tropicana, who conducted a Puerto Rican trivia quiz, handed out a “Kiss Me, I’m Puerto Rican” award, and shrieked “Cha-cha-cha” at every opportunity. While Tropicana certainly kept the proceedings lively, her mixed menu of broad comedy and implicit social criticism tilted the performance toward an occasional self-parody of things Puerto Rican.

A mixed Latin-Anglo audience thoroughly enjoyed this performance revue, although there were moments when many who attended were puzzled by its ambiguities, the same way that they would find it hard to decide what’s sincere and what’s a joke in a “straight” version of these Latin revues (such as “El Show de Iris Chacon,” with its overripe, histrionic star and, to an Anglo eye, high-camp skits). A more pointed attitude from this performance-art version staged by Puerto Ricans, whether more clearly an out-and-out entertainment or a political statement, would have made Wish You Were Here a more telling statement. While its capable performers affirmed aspects of their gaudy, exuberant culture, they only genially mocked most Anglos’ ignorance of the basic facts about it. This engaging entertainment concentrated on comedy and left the complex questions that they raised for other artists to answer.

John Howell