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Our Spanish Cousins

December 16, 2011

I saw Vidas Perfectas Thursday night.  I’m glad that I did, and I think you should see it too.  They’re performing El Parque, La Iglesia, & the Backyard (I don’t remember how to say the Backyard en Espanol) for the next few days, all more or less in my backyard at the Irondale in Fort Greene.

I’m struck by how much they at once changed the original and how much they didn’t.  I had an idea in my head of what they were doing based on their promotional materials that Vidas Perfectas aimed to present the original piece but with two really big switches – Spanish for English and the South/Southwest for the Midwest.  I think I was right in some sense, but a lot of the ideas attached to Perfect Lives are stretched & remade in this production in natural ways, ways that seem to this person who’s had his nose in the libretto for months both stimulating and kind of scary, or daunting, or new.

My mind doesn’t want to believe that the linguistic shift is as big of a deal as it is.  Alex Waterman (the director) asserts that you gain an additional ~30% of words in the translation (which as far as I can tell hews pretty close to the English), so you need to, for example in La Iglesia, slow down the pulse to fit all the words in at a comfortable pace (and they did this very gracefully).  Or in El Parque, the feel is completely different, from having a slow, plodding stream of words to a much more articulate & rapid stream delivery.  My Spanish is fairly minimal, so I can’t really tell which idioms make it and which don’t.  I could easily follow Ned Sublette’s folksy way of asking about the president of the bank and talking about people soothing themselves with lemonade in the Backyard.  I wondered about whether the dick jokes translate.

I can see where the decision to record new backing tracks come from, seems like a fun venture.  It sparked a pretty big idea in my head.  Alex is cellist, and a great cellist at that, and so on top of David Gordon’s electronic drum beats and synth sounds, all with different feels this time around, there’s often a small chorus of cellos.  I wondered why he elected to not perform these live, even from off stage.  Then I started thinking about the idea of Perfect Lives‘s economy of players, one of its traits that I was first taken with seven years ago.  In the television opera, it seems to me that you can always map the action in the story to the four players.  Sometimes it’s rough, but it’s there.  The quartet in the car could be thought of with Jill as Gwyn, David as Ed, Bob as D, and Blue as Dwayne.  Or in the Bank, Jill is Isolde, David is the manager, Bob is R, and Blue is Buddy.  These are open to interpretation, but I used to meditate on this a lot (in fact I wrote a book of sorts inspired by the idea of players having sub-roles for National Novel Writing Month in November 2005).

Vidas Perfectas maintained this very clearly.  From isolating the choral parts to be spoken by a single chorus member in the Church to the placement on stage of Elisa (as Isolde) in the Backyard to the way they’re credited in the program, it’s clear that showing the mapping of the four players on to the various characters is important in this production.  This made me think about how we abandoned that in Perfect Lives Manhattan.  It seemed to me that without the video, these connections were much more tenuous.  We didn’t want to stage the action so literally (nor has anyone in the productions I know of [Gelsey & I in the Supermarket are perhaps an exception, but even then we were singing instead of just pantomiming old people shopping]), and we didn’t want to use another visual medium to indicate that someone could be both a player and a character at the same time.  Moreover we tended to make use of our bodies in other ways – as instrumentalists, back up singers, dancers, etc.  I think our decision here was to let the text & the music create the characters and throw economy to the wind.  We sprawled at times.  I think that might make the episodes more disjointed, but I also think we compensated by bringing the stories into appropriate spaces and doing things like mapping each character’s route through the locations of the day.  If you’re only seeing episodes 1, 6, & 7, you don’t have a larger sense of who the eloping quartet are or who Isolde & R are, but it is cemented together in the bodies of the people put in front of you in those roles.  It’s about the players as much as the characters in the TV version of Perfect Lives as well as Vidas Perfectas.  If you can see the whole story, or at least enough episodes to catch the threads, then you probably stand a better shot of getting the effects of the plot.  But then again, that may be beside the point, and the performance they’ve staged doesn’t depend on you getting the plot.  There’s larger things at stake.  This is all fairly secondary stuff.

A couple other things I wanted to say:

This production goes very maximal on the chorus, which to me is delightful.  Maybe it was the EQ, but I could hear them much more clearly than Ned, and I found it was an easier way for me to follow along.  If I could figure out what the chorus said, I could figure out what Ned was saying, particularly in The Church where I have so much of it memorized.  It’s also interesting to hear the Backyard with all the numbers, I mean all the numbers in it.  Very different feel, very cool.

The chorus parts are done in an impressive rhythmic unison which spoke volumes for both the arranging & the rehearsal of the these parts.  There was such a wealth of musical material in these little two word phrases, and it was very compelling to watch Elisa in particular, looking at her score for one beat, looking up the next beat, and delivering her line on the next beat(s) in La Iglesia, there was a lovely theater to that.  There were also some really interesting registral shifts between Abraham, Elisa, & Ned – their voices come together very beautifully.  Again, very cleverly & carefully arranged.

It’s all pretty overwhelming to be watching this again – this is the first time I’ve ever be an audience member for a live staging of Perfect Lives in any form.  I’m very grateful for it.  I’m sure all of our (Varispeed & VP) different decisions have given each other a lot to think about in terms of what the piece is and how you make it happen, and I’m sure next time we take on Perfect Lives, it’ll be affected by and filtered through this production of Vidas Perfectas.  So go have yourself some thoughts and let us know what you think.

No muy bien dicho, Dave, pero eso es algo.

– Dave

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