Is it possible to be completely truthful in attempting to tell the life of a famous author in a biofilm? That is the premise of Argentinian novelist and playwright Romina Paula’s Fauna now having its English language premiere at New York’s Torn Page Theater. As the play is philosophical, poetic, cerebral, and literary with quotes from many authors including Argentinian writers unfamiliar to Americans, it may be too erudite and esoteric for most theatergoers. However, April Sweeney’s production at the vest pocket Torn Page Theater is so intense that it carries its audience with it. With the actors only feet from the viewers so that you feel you are in the room with them, the play is a powerful experience that few productions ever achieve.
Fauna, a poet’s poet and a translator, has died recently at age 98 and come to the attention of film director José Luis. He and his actress – muse and sometime lover Julia have been invited to her home by her adult children Maria Luísa and Santos to soak up information for a film of her life. Besides being a feminist, Fauna (calling herself Fauno) often dressed in men’s clothing in order to attend classes at the university, forbidden to women at that time. Maria Luísa finds the film suspect but her brother Santos has volunteered to enact the role of Ramón, their father, in rehearsals of the movie script.
Between rehearsals, they discuss poetry, translation, love, marriage, gender roles, life, death, relationships, and the past all inspired by Fauna’s life and career. They quote Rilke, Shakespeare and several Argentinian writers. Things become complicated as they begin to be attracted to each other and previous relationships fall apart. Santos talks of his life in nature on the property and Maria Luísa lays to rest various myths about her mother. By the end, it is Santos who is not sure that he wants the movie made and the play ends on an ambiguous note as the intruders are requested to leave. Will the film ever be made?
In the translation by Brenda Werth and director Sweeney, the play is at times realistic as well as surreal. Passages are poetic as they discuss memories and stories, while scenes like the rehearsals of the screenplay are theatrical and passionate. The set by Calypso Michelet and Anna Labykina has one wall covered in a jungle wallpaper which gives the play a very otherworldly quality. In Michelet’s costume design, one of the men’s outfits that Fauna wore adorns a chair throughout the play almost as her stand-in. The lighting by Labykina and sound design by Paul Pinot add to the ambiance.
Under Sweeney’s assured direction, the cast could not be more immersed in their roles, though the audience’s closeness to the actors has a great deal to do with the sense of immediacy. She also makes excellent use of the playing area in the course of the evening. David Skeist as the director is a conflicted character as he reveals his insecurity with his work and finds his self-image shattered. Laura Butler Rivera as Fauna’s daughter Maria Luísa is wry, wise, self-possessed, as well as reticent about herself. Veraalba Santa’s Julia is the essence of a star actress, in control but questioning, used to having her way at all times, but prepared to encounter challenging situations. Santos is described as feral before he arrives and Richard Jesse Johnson, exuding sex appeal from every pore, is an earthy roughhewn creature more at home in the outdoors, always speaking his mind. As a foursome, the actors work well together, changing partners as it were, so we see them in various combinations as the play unfolds.
Romina Paula’s Fauna will mostly likely prove to be caviar to the general, a play for an elite audience that is discriminating and cultured in its theatergoing. Not a great deal happens, but much is revealed. It is typical of plays by novelists with literary dialogue, philosophical pronouncements, and poetic monologues. However, April Sweeney’s ferocious and bold production could not be more commanding and gets every last drop out of the play. The mini-festival of English language premieres by Paula continues on October 21 with the first American production of The Whole of Time, translated by Jean Graham-Jones, and inspired by Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
Fauna (through October 1, 2022)
Necessary Digression in collaboration with Torn Page and The Martin E. Segal Center for Theatre Research, and Colgate University
Torn Page, 435 W. 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, http://www.eventbrite.com
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission