Stage Door Review

Un poyo rojo

Friday, October 4, 2019

✭✭

by Luciano Rosso, Nicolás Poggi, Alfonso Barón & Hermes Gaido, directed by Hermes Gaido

Canadian Stage, Baillie Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto

October 3-11, 2019

“If you want my future, forget my past” (from “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls)

The Argentinian dance/theatre piece Un poyo rojo premiered in its full-hour-long form in 2010 in Madrid. It has been touring the world or playing in Argentina ever since and has finally made its way to Toronto after its Canadian premiere in Montreal last month. The duet for two men is an invigoratingly complete blending of dance, acrobatics, mime and clown that breaks down the borders between these genres such as its action breaks down the borders between what is masculine and what is not. There is so much detail in the work choreographed and performed by Luciano Rosso and Nicolás Poggi, you feel that it you blink you’ll miss something.

The title Un poyo rojo is a play on words. In most Spanish countries, though not Argentina, the words “poyo” meaning “stone bench” or “ledge” and “pollo” meaning “chicken” are homonyms. Many reviewers of Un poyo rojo assume that the title means “a red rooster” and see the relation between the two male performers as a form of cockfight. On the other hand, the phrase “montar un poyo”, especially in Argentina, literally means to stand on a podium and figuratively means to make a public statement. The title, therefore, can easily refer to both meanings at once since a bench, though not of stone, plays a significant role and the show does make a public statement that masculinity is much more varied than traditional machismo.

The set consists solely of a bank of eight lockers and a wooden bench. Rosso (the one without arm tattoos) and Poggi (the one with) are in the process of warming up as we enter. When the light comes back up after a blackout, the two face each other barefoot in their identical greyish shorts and tank-tops. They hold this pose so long we feel tension build between the two. At the same time, we should be asking ourselves why we feel tension building. They are, after all, just two performers who seem to be staring intently at each other. If we examine our thoughts we will find that because they are two men we read defiance and mutual disdain in this pose even though the performers’ faces are blank. The action that follows explores these assumptions. 

Indeed, we see that the two embark on a kind of dance competition with each literally pushing the other out of the small spotlight that shines centre stage. This competition gradually becomes the physical combat we expected with the two taking up classical boxing poses and taunting each other. After a few chest bumps this combat comically morphs into each of the two doing competing animal impressions, which then moves up the evolutionary scale to humans whose movements are characterized by a sequence of dance styles. 

At one point they both give examples of real ballet poses and movements, both male and female, but this is instantly followed by a satire of the same movements. Poggi does an amazingly effective impression of a dancer doing a sequence of rapid pirouettes simply by shaking his face back and forth. 

For his part Rosso makes fun of a ballet dancer fooling about trying to find exactly the right place for his toe in a tendu devant. He then does a series of travelling pirouettes until he is behind the lockers and then emerges imitating the the hulking walk and poses of male runway models. After this he emerges from the other side of the lockers and imitates the artificial crossed leg walk and posing style of female runway models.

What this last sequence makes clear is how the fashion industry has so radically stylized and differentiated what is a male versus a female style. We notice this especially since this runway scenes have been preceded by two male dancers transforming their movements into a wide range of possibilities that have nothing to do with what is “male” or “female” in movement or at rest. 

At this point the two take a rest, Rosso sitting on the bench trying and failing to light a cigarette and Poggi rather annoyingly gliding through channels on a portable radio. As Rosso reveals to the audience after the show is over, this portion of the show is different every time it is performed because they duo actually tune in to whatever is playing on the local radio stations at that time. It may be that this section seems to take up too much time simply because there was very little the two could make use of at that time. To music, Poggi would dance to himself while standing while Rosso would dance while sitting. To talk radio, Poggi would do nothing, while Rosso would engage in an old clown routine of sticking four cigarettes into his mouth, one in each nostril and one in each ear while mouthing the sage words of the talk show host and his guest. 

When Poggi finally gets fed up with changing channels, he sits on the bench near Rosso, they both happen to turn their heads toward each other and find their lips on either side of the same cigarette. In claiming possession of the item their lips move close until they kiss.

This marks a turning point in the action. All the previous dancing competition, imitations of animals, dance styles and models could be dismissed as locker room horseplay. They maintain their lip-lock so long that we wonder whether their characters are considering whether this accidental kiss does or does not mean anything. 

Eventually Poggi lets go of his end of the cigarette, Rosso turns his head and the cigarette drops into his lap. Sexually, the situation has just become more complicated. Does Poggi put his hand in Rosso’s lap to pick up the cigarette or not? As it happens, Russo gingerly does pick up the cigarette and puts it back into Russo’s mouth. Then Russo lets it fall intentionally into his lap. Of the two we now know who is the pursuer and who is the pursued Poggi reacts to Rosso’s action by dumping a whole handful of cigarette into Rosso’s lap.

The second half of the show concerns itself with whether Poggi is willing to have his friendship with Rosso turn into something more or not. The two help each other change their clothes – Poggi into white, Rosso into red, making us wonder if the singular in the title Un poyo rojo refers specifically to Rosso’s character. The two dance a salsa together and again accidentally find themselves locked in a kiss. This time it is Rosso who makes fun of the situation by speaking into Poggi’s mouth and producing a surprisingly accurate imitation of Poggi’s previous channel changing on the radio including excerpts of music, static, ads and talk shows.

After another blackout the two find themselves exactly where they were when the show started – standing downstage centre staring at each other. This time, however, each alternates in moving his head toward the other while the other comically slides his head backward from the oncoming face. Here we see desire and aggression unite. We wonder whether each is daring the other to commit to a kiss or threatening the other with a kiss as a form of humiliation. 

This leads to a standoff that breaks into the most acrobatic section of the show. Rosso and Poggi alternate in hurling themselves into each other’s arms in a dizzying array of poses. During this sequence Rosso becomes increasingly aggressive in his desire as he tries to undress Poggi with each move – pulling down Poggi’s trunks to show his bum, peeking down the front of his trunks, pulling off his shirt, his shoe, his kneepad. Poggi manages to keep the question ambiguous whether he does or does not object to this treatment. Once they sit down again to rest, Poggi puts the radio between them seemingly to protect himself from Rosso. Or, we wonder, has he set up a deliberate barrier to see if Rosso will breach it?

The grace, athleticism, precision and comic timing of both Poggi and Rosso are immaculate. They can make their bodies appear as solid as rock one moment and as liquid as water the next. The first half of the show that depicts the men’s ability to transform themselves into myriad forms through motion and posing already asks the question of why we have stereotypes of what men and women are like when the human body is capable of infinite metamorphoses. 

In the second half of the show when the relation between the two has been revealed as pursuer and pursued, the actions of the two demonstrate what a fine line there is between aggression and playfulness since both are connected to desire. As a bonus Rosso does a highly acrobatic lip-synching routine to the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” that carries on the show’s theme.

Un poyo rojo may be wordless but through its choreography and Hermes Gaido’s direction it says more about the complexity not just of male-male relations but of human relations in general than innumerable conventional plays manage to do. There is a reason the show has been a hit all around the world. It’s the kind of show that will only deepen on repeated viewings. Be sure to see it. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Luciano Rosso and Nicolás Poggi; Nicolás Poggi and Luciano Rosso.

For tickets, visit www.canadianstage.com.