In the first minutes of Jose Sanchis Sinisterra’s 1987 play “Ay, Carmela!” most of the plot is revealed. Unfortunately, however, under the ponderous direction of Alberto Arvelo those first few expository minutes are stretched into nearly two hours of tedious dialogue.
This two-person play (plus a brief wordless cameo by a Spanish soldier) introduces Paulino and Carmela, a traveling vaudeville team that has inadvertently wandered into enemy territory and been captured. The time is 1937, in the midst of the deadly Spanish Civil War, and Paulino and Carmela are partisans of the republicans, the left-leaning faction supporting the Second Spanish Republic, while the “enemy” are the nationalists supporting the ruling fascist regime of Francisco Franco.
In the first scene we learn that Carmela is dead. That’s her ghost, or her aura, wandering around onstage beguiling her husband. (At least, I think he’s her husband-he’s wearing a wedding ring-but you wouldn’t guess it from their severe lack of chemistry and the cool indifference she shows him.)
Carmela (played by Eloisa Maturen) is a Flamenco dancer, which she demonstrates periodically by throwing her arms in the air, stamping her feet briefly, striking a pose and twirling. She is costumed in an ugly red damask drape (with tassels, yet!) that might have served previously as a festive table covering or bedspread in another play.
She, as an allegorical figure, offers meditations on the afterlife, while he contends that staying alive is the primary goal, no matter what you have to do to achieve it.
Although the two of them are identified as “mediocre vaudevillians” by the playwright, Paulino is only intermittently so as the play traverses back and forth in time. Alejandro Furth, a fine actor, provides Paulino with all the passion and anguish that the situation warrants. He is articulate and forceful, especially as he attempts to dissuade Carmela from indulging in a vain patriotic gesture that will get her killed.
Since this drama is defined partly as a comedy, Furth also has a scene in which he parades around the stage dressed in a mask from the traditional Italian commedia del’arte genre, to the tremendous delight of the lone soldier who represents the audience of military officials from the enemy camp.
The major disappointment in this production, however, is that it advertises set design by iconic architect Frank Gehry and music composed by the LA Phil’s music and artistic director, Gustavo Dudamel. The music, which is inserted a few times in spasmodic 10-second spurts, is beautiful but nearly non-existent. And the set consists of a bright red chest and a yellow chair on an otherwise empty stage with a heavy gray curtain cascading gracefully mid-stage right and stretching a quarter of the way across. As well as line drawings by Goya stretched across the proscenium depicting figures presumably responding to an earlier war. Disney Hall it isn’t.
And despite Jose Sanchis Sinisterra’s reputation as one of the most influential dramatists of his generation, his protagonist, unfortunately, is no Don Quixote.
This West Coast premiere of “Ay, Carmela!” is a production of the Stella Adler Theatre. It is being performed at the Hudson Main Stage Theatre at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. in Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Dec. 13. For tickets go to www.plays411.com/aycarmela or call (323) 960-7792.