New York

Tango Varsoviano

As part of the “Next Wave” series of collaborative performances, Teatro del Sur’s Tango Varsoviano (Warsaw Tango) was an especially polyglot hybrid: an ’80s work set in the ’40s, a theater piece with almost no words, a Hispanic creation (the group is from Argentina) grounded in the French nouveau roman theories of Alain Robbe-Grillet. In this case, however, cross-fertilization produced a sterile offshoot. Warsaw Tango, written and directed by Alberto Félix Alberto, realized neither the intellectual provocation of its conceptual agenda nor the visceral wallop of its low-life material.

The main problem stemmed from its principal inspiration, the dead-end esthetics of the nouveau roman. The work’s characters consisted of four stereotypes: “Amanda,” a working class woman; “The Pole,” the housewife’s immigrant husband; “The Diva,” a tango-mad night-lifer; and “The Magnificent,” a macho lover. The work was performed by accomplished actors whose activities were reduced to acting-class exercises. Its events were often repeated, sometimes with small variations, and transpired in dozens of non-sequitur vignettes separated by blackouts. The work’s space was fluid (walls were reversed to turn rooms inside out) and its time was conditional—present, past, and future were interwoven. Environmental sound was used in leitmotif style: Chopin and a tango song, trains and the ocean alternated and recurred. The basic story line contrasted the drab life of the protagonist—Amanda endlessly irons laundry—with her fantasies of violent sex and death. The overall atmosphere was of one of depressed reverie.

Trouble was, these premises have hardened into such clichés in themselves that their now-bankrupt strategies (which were never very rich to begin with) yielded not a glimmer of theatrical innovation. Tango went through conceptual motions intended to uncover new ways to look at and think about dramatized events in a critical manner; it played, however, like a smug exercise. Alberto so overloaded the work with an oxymoronic, dialectical agenda that the play’s most notable feature was its blatant mechanics. Such rigid dramaturgy was probably intended to stand for seriousness of purpose: its consistent accomplishment was to squash the dramatic juice right out of the potentially compelling subject matter. The role-playing, the sexual warfare, the interplay between reality and dream—all remained labored gimmicks, straining for significance, rather than becoming thought- bombs to explode clichés into meaning.

John Howell