Stage Door Review 2024

El Terremoto

Tuesday, April 9, 2024


by Christine Quintana, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia

Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

April 3-21, 2024

Abuela: “Tanto espectáculo por nada”

Just two days after Inua Ellams’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters closed at Soulpepper Christine Quintana’s adaptation of the same play began previews at the Tarragon. The main difference is that Ellams makes no attempt to disguise the fact that his play is an adaptation, whereas Quintana does. Nothing in the theatre programme, nor the Audience Resource Guide, nor the publicity makes any reference to Chekhov even though the parallels between the two are obvious. Quintana’s El Terremoto (“The Earthquake”) uses Chekhov’s play to structure the plot and the characters’ traits in her play but without acknowledgement. As it happens, Quintana does have one major twist to add to Chekhov’s story, but despite all its theatrical flair, that one twist strangely has a neglible on the action.

Like Chekhov’s play, Quintana’s three sisters are living in the family home after both parents have died. While the parents of Chekhov’s three sisters died at different times, the parents in Quintana’s play were both killed at the same time in a car crash 20 years before the action begins. As in Chekhov, Quintana initially focusses on the youngest the three sisters, Lina (equivalent to Irina in Chekhov). The oldest sister is a university professor Luz (eq. the high school teacher Olga), and the middle sister is Rosa (eq. Masha). Unlike Chekhov’s Masha, Rosa is not married but like Masha, Rosa is in love (or at least in lust) with a married man with children, Henry (eq. Vershinin). In Chekhov, Irina has two rivals for her love. In Quintana, Lina has already found her beloved, the non-Latine Tash. As in Chekhov a friend of the family, Omar (eq. Kulygin), has an unrequited love for the eldest sister, Luz. Also, as in Chekhov the three sisters share their home with an elderly woman who embodies the family’s history. In Chekhov this is Anfisa, the nurse who brought them all up. In Quintana, this is Abuela (meaning “grandmother”), the mother of the sisters’ father.

Chekhov’s play begins on Irina’s name-day (i.e., the day dedicated to the saint bearing her name) when she is 20. This also happens to be the first anniversary of the sisters’ father’s death. Quintana’s play begins with the 21st birthday party for Lina, which also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the sisters’ parents’ death. Chekhov’s three sisters live in the countryside and long to return to the cosmopolitan life of Moscow where they grew up. In Quintana, the sisters already live in the big city. Yet, Lina and Luz long to visit the small town in Mexico where their father grew up in hopes of somehow getting in touch with their roots. In Chekhov, a major disaster, a fire, divides the play in two. In Quintana, a major disaster, the earthquake of the title, serves the same function.

Quintana even gives the sisters the same personalities as Chekhov’s sisters. Lina, like Irina, may be an adult but she is romantic and naïve and has virtually no experience of life. Rosa, like Masha, is cynical and bored with anything conventional. Luz, like Olga, is sturdy and sensible and has become the de facto head of the household. Like Olga, Luz has spent so much time looking after others’ needs that no longer knows whether she has needs of her own.

In terms of plot the key difference between Chekhov and Quintana is that Quintana does not give the sisters a brother. In Chekhov the brother marries a woman who eventually takes over the household and becomes a petty tyrant. In Quintana, there is no such figure and, as a result, there is no struggle for dominance occurring within the family. This naturally makes the play much less interesting since there is basically no conflict.

Quintana depicts her three sisters as constantly bickering and fighting even though it’s unclear what is causing their disputes. Abuela notices this when she comments in Act 1, “Tanto espectáculo por nada” (“So much drama about nothing”). In Act 2 the sisters are again accused of having nothing whatsoever to complain or argue about. Quintana may intend the sisters’ fighting to be funny, but continual pointless fighting is ultimately annoying. In drama conflict should lead somewhere. Here it leads nowhere. Even characters’ entrances and exits are poorly motivated. Why do Lina and Tash leave a dinner Abuela has made for them to discuss things outside, thus rudely leaving her alone, when they then proceed to discuss nothing outside?

Quintana includes one major scene that disrupts the flow of her watered-down version of Chekhov in BC. Since this comes as a huge surprise, I can’t discuss it except to say that it is a break from the realism that characterizes the majority of the play and is even noted while it is ongoing to be an example of ‘magic realism”. Although people tend to think of magic realism as a principal characteristic of Latin American fiction, the first example of magic realism, including the term itself, appeared in Germany and Italy in the 1920s.

This disruptive episode is the most entertaining part of the play. It almost seems as if Quintana made the rest of the play so dull and pointless just to highlight the verve and imagination of this section. It’s a pity then that the scene, once over, appears to have achieved nothing except a rapprochement between Lina and Luz.

Except for this one scene, the dialogue is relentlessly pedestrian and lacking in wit or depth. Unlike Chekhov, Quintana captures only the surface of what her characters say, not the subtext. This means that the roles for none of the characters are meaty. The actors are really left to the own devises to make more of their parts than Quintana has given them.

The most endearing character is Abuela played with gruff dignity by Rosalba Martinni. Quintana has decided that Abuela speaks almost all her lines in Spanish, but, even if you don’t know the language, Martinni’s intonation of her words is so expressive that it’s not hard to guess her meaning. Although we feel that Abuela loves the sisters as her son’s children, we also sense that she thinks all three complain so much because they are so spoiled.

Of the sisters, only Luz played by Mariló Núñez wins our sympathy. Rosa and Lina may criticize Luz for being a perfectionist but Núñez makes us see that as the oldest sister Luz feels a responsibility in the absence of their parents to have everything be as ideal as possible. Núñez shows that playing the surrogate parent takes a toll on Luz. Luz thinks so much about others’ wants she has forgotten her own. That’s why we are sad to see that Luz can’t seem to pick up on Omar’s romantic overtures.

Unlike their equivalents in Chekhov, the younger two sisters are not sympathetic. The Rosa of Miranda Calderon is particularly off-putting. Masha in Chekhov has at least the excuses of a thwarted career and love for a married man to justify her unwavering cynicism. Rather unbelievably given her grim outlook, Quintana’s Rosa is a practicing architect. She also loves a married man with children, but unlike Masha’s Vershinin, Henry gives Rosa no clear sign that he loves her. Dressed like a Goth and made up like one of brides of Dracula, Calderon’s harsh voice suits Rosa’s unpleasant appearance. Miranda gives us no insight into why Rosa’s view of the world should be so negative and her treatment of other people so abrasive, especially in comparison with the other two sisters.

As played by Margarita Valderrama, the youngest sister Lina is innocent and unworldly in a way that makes her seem foolish and unstable. Lina is the one who drops out of university and is fixated on the idea that she needs to visit her father’s home town in Mexico to get in touch with her roots. Yet, Lina doesn’t know Spanish and Luz tells her the Mexican town will have changed radically from when her father lived there. What Lina does not see, and no one mentions, is that Lina should stay in university if only to learn Spanish. Then she could speak to the person who knew her father best, namely Abuela who lives right in the same city. Going elsewhere to find your roots is a common trope, but it makes no sense if there is a font of knowledge about your culture and your past available under your own roof.

In other roles, Sam Khalileh is a pleasant, calming presence as Omar, whose ailing father was the sister’s father’s best friend. Khalileh is able to play subtext so that we can read Omar’s warm feelings toward Luz even though she cannot.

Michael Scholar Jr. presents us with an unhappy man as Henry, a friend of the family. Scholar sows that Henry enjoys being with the family as a whole but does not enjoy Rosa’s aggressive attempts to seduce him. Scholar’s Henry is so mild-mannered that he doesn’t know how to tell Rosa to stop, a fact that Rosa interprets as his playing coy. We feel that Henry in no way deserves the gruesome fate Quintana reserves for him except that she saw no other way to end his story and punish Rosa’s egocentric desire.

Of the sisters’ potential partners, we are most happy with Tash played by non-binary actor Caolán Kelly. As an outsider without the baggage of the past, Tash is more able to appreciate Lina’s family than Lina is and is more able to see look at Lina’s problems objectively. Tash is the only character, except Omar who is culturally an outsider, who is able to feel upbeat in a family still caught in the shadow of gloom and recrimination after their parents’ death. Kelly shows us a person with a positive outlook, willing to take people as they find them.

The set for El Terremoto has a greater role than do most sets at the Tarragon. Designer Shannon Lea Doyle has created a combined living room/dining room that is so attractive one would be happy to move in. The level of décor tells us at once that despite the death of the sisters’ parents they have been left them relatively well off. As we learn, both parents were high-level professionals and their children have had a privileged upbringing. It’s no wonder that Abuela should wonder what the three have to complain about.

But given the disaster of the title, a major reason not to leave the auditorium during intermission is to see how a team of hard-working stage managers transform the comfy-looking family space into a quake-wracked disaster zone in only 20 minutes. It is perfectly fitting that Apprentice Stage manager Emily Cornelius should take a bow with the cast on opening night to acknowledge the important contribution she and her helpers make.

In the “Welcome” by Tarragon Artistic Director Mike Payette, we read of Quintana how “Christine weaves her story from the communities that have shaped her, those that are deeply resonant to us all, and asks us to consider the roots of where we exist today”. It would have been most suitable here to mention that one important strand of Quintana’s story does not come from her community but from Russian literature. Use of a source without acknowledgement is called appropriation. While I appreciate the changes that Quintana has wrought, especially in the second act, I would also appreciate more honesty about the nature of the show’s prime source since that would only help audiences in appraising how Quintana has used it.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Margarita Valderrama as Lina, Caolán Kelly as Tash, Miranda Calderon as Rosa, Michael Scholar Jr. as Henry, Rosalba Martinni as Abuela and Mariló Núñez as Luz; Margarita Valderrama as Lina and Caolán Kelly as Tash; Rosalba Martinni as Abuela, Sam Khalileh as Omar, Mariló Núñez as Luz and Margarita Valderrama as Lina; Michael Scholar Jr. as Henry and Miranda Calderon as Rosa. © 2024 Cylla von Tiedemann. 

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