Stage Door Review 2024

On the Other Side of the Sea

Wednesday, February 14, 2024


by Jorgelina Cerritos, translated by Margaret Stanton & Anna Donko, directed by Soheil Parsa

Aluna Theatre, The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St West, Toronto

February 10-25, 2024

Dorotea: “No one who has hope dies”

Aluna Theatre is currently presenting the Canadian premiere of On the Other Side of the Sea (Al otro lado del mar) by Salvadoran playwright Jorgelina Cerritos. The play won the prestigious 2010 Premio Latinoamericano Casa de las Américas for drama, the first time a play from El Salvador has ever won the prize. This also marks the first time Aluna is producing a work by a Latin American artist not residing in Canada. Cerritos’ play proves to be an enchanting work, morphing from absurdist comedy to become a moving poetic drama.

The premise of the 80-minute-long work is that a mature woman, Dorotea, working on the national census (the country is never named) has been assigned an “office” on a deserted beach within commuting distance of the capital. The only potential client she has is a young fisherman who needs a birth certificate so he can travel to the other side of the sea to pick up his dog, visit a friend and marry a mermaid with whom he has fallen in love. The only difficulty he has is that he has no name and no address and does not know his date of birth. Without these details, Dorotea cannot issue him a certificate. The fisherman is thus caught in a trap where the very information he needs to get a form to prove who he is is information that he does not know.

The fisherman proposes that for the purpose of the form that his first name is “Fisherman” and his last name “Of the Sea”. This idea sounds less awkward in the original Spanish where his name is “Pescador del Mar”. He suggests that his address could be the beach and that his date of birth should be the date the certificate is issued since that will be the date when, in the eyes of the government, he will have begun to exist.

The first part of the pay focusses on the repetition of the Fisherman’s interactions with Dorotea. He requests a certificate, she rejects his request, he says why he needs it and she says why she can’t help him. As long as the action proceeds in the mode of repetition with variations, it seems very much like an absurdist play in the style of Ionesco. The bizarre location of Dorotea’s office in a place that is “nowhere” where “no one comes” adds to the absurdity of the situation. During the first part of the play we are likely to think it is a satire on bureaucracy and government regulations.

Yet, early on, only seven pages into the text, Cerritos interrupts this typical absurdist scenario with an interior monologue by the Fisherman. Were the play truly absurdist, the playwright would not be interested in revealing the characters’ thought processes to us. As the action progresses over the course of six days, the interior monologues of the Fisherman become more frequent and are joined by those of Dorotea.

What emerges is that the Fisherman, despite being abandoned as a baby by his parents, has managed to create a very rich life for himself. He has found companions on his travels – a dog, a male friend and a mermaid. But more than this, he feels that the sea itself speaks to him.

The Fisherman talks so much about his life, he naturally asks Dorotea about hers. She says she has nothing to say. At first, we think she is affronted by the Fisherman’s presumption. But, as we discover, Dorotea really does have nothing to say about her life. It is only her job that gives it meaning and even then she knows that the government favours younger women and has given older women posts like hers in the middle of nowhere where they will have no clients.

Dorotea and the Fisherman thus turn out to be two complementary human beings. He has no name, address or birthdate but he has a full life. She has a name, an address and a birthdate but her life is empty. She keeps waiting for a man to come to her over the sea who will give her a child and child she would name “Sea” (“Mar” in the original). The Fisherman states, “I am I, no matter what name I have”, and Dorotea notes that that is something that Shakespeare said. Dorotea is referring to Juliet’s statement to Romeo, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet”.

These lines help Dorotea see a way through the impasse she has arrived at with the Fisherman. These should also help us to see what the subject of the play has been all along, namely “What is the nature of identity?” Cerritos makes clear that names are necessarily only as a means of classification, of deciding what group a person does or does not belong to. Yet, a name alone can hardly comprehend the fullness of the life it labels.

Cerritos stance will not please people on the extreme right or left who classify people by their names and place of origin rather than by the lives they live. Both sides sort people first by place of origin and, only if the right place is given, by the life lived. Cerritos’ play wants to have us ask how we determine our own identity and those of others.

The play which began as an absurdist satire has a beautifully poetic ending which we foresee before the characters do. In fact, one can see that Cerritos’ changing of dramatic style is consonant with her change in focus from the externals of identity to what is internal that forms an identity.

Director Soheil Parsa has guided the action, as usual, with insight and compassion. Both Beatriz Pizano and Carlos Gonzalez-Vio are familiar to Toronto audiences but we have seen them almost exclusively in dark, serious dramas – Pizano as the stern matriarch in García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and Gonzales-Vio as a thug in Sarah Kane’s Crave. Therefore, it is a real pleasure to see the two in a lighter, more hope-filled work.

Pizano has a fine sense of comedy and shows us the humorous side of irrational severity in the form of Dorotea’s officiousness. More than this, however, when we start to hear Dorotea’s own thoughts, Pizano shows us a deeply unhappy woman who clings to a seemingly unfulfillable hope to keep herself going.

Gonzalez-Vio removes the harshness in his voice that he uses when he plays menacing figures and replaces it with a warmth and ardour perfect for the increasingly poetic passages Cerritos writes for the Fisherman. The Fisherman can converse with the sea and Gonzalez-Vio makes it believable by engaging his whole body in the task.

Trevor Schwellnus’s set is a handsome end of a weathered pier with a bit of cloth below it to suggest a sandy beach. His sensitive lighting not only signals the passing of time during the day but isolates figures briefly for their interior monologues. Sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne fills our ears with the sometimes thrilling, sometimes dangerous sound of waves crashing on the shore.

Seeing a play like this by an author previously unknown to me so well acted, directed and designed makes me feel lucky to live in a city where a theatre company like Aluna can give a real discovery like Jorgelina Cerritos a wider audience. Do see On the Other Side of the Sea and don’t try to label it too early. Flow with Cerritos’s transformation of style and ideas and you will be richly rewarded.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Beatriz Pizano as Dorotea and Carlos Gonzalez-Vio as Fisherman Of the Sea. © 2024 Jeremy Mimnagh.

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