The Caborca Bilingual Theatrical Ensemble’s Zoetrope at the Abrons Arts Center is both a domestic drama and a mild political statement, combining both in an uncomfortable, sometimes confusing, but ultimately rewarding epic. Written and directed by Javier Antonio González, Zoetrope veers bumpily from the 1950’s to 1999 and from Lares, Puerto Rico, to New York City.
A zoetrope is an old-fashioned device that runs still images in quick succession giving the illusion of motion. It’s a pre-kinescope device that entertained viewers a century or more ago. The zoetrope metaphor here refers to the quick time and location changes that, in the end, become a blur of impressions, some surreal, some totally nonsensical.
The entire play is recorded by a roving videographer and projected onto the several standing panels that dominate the performance space. (The set is by Jian Jung. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew and Alex deNevers did the dramatic lighting, with Yew joined with Attilio Rigotti (who holds the camera) to produce the videos.)
It begins in Lares, Puerto Rico in the early 1950’s. Padre Aurelio (David Skeist) officiates at the most tendentious, sanctimonious wedding ceremony ever for the nuptials of Inés (Laura Butler Rivera) and Severino (Kevin Emilio Pérez). From this matrimonial scene the entire play unfolds in a series of complicated family and community confrontations led by the charismatic Francisca (Kairiana Núñez Santaliz), Inés’ sister, who has her doubts about the couple.
Equally perturbed by the wedding is Severino’s sister Celeste (Pelé Sánchez Tormes) whose chic dresses bring color to the proceedings. (Costumes by Cristina Agostini Fitch.) Celeste is Francisca’s old friend and competitor. They joust with each other bitchily throughout Zoetrope.
Severino is soon off to New York where he cheats on Inés with tall, blonde Susan (Susannah Hoffman). Their compatriot is Russ (also David Skeist) who has lost his job and has been wounded in some sort of attack, comforted by Susan and Severino.
Even as Inés finds out the dispiriting news about Susan and Severino, she faithfully continues her profession of teaching, asking her class about their impressions of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Both Genoveva (Nicole Betancourt) and Esmeraldo (Christopher Cancel Pomales) question her leading to tangential conversations that muddy an already verbose script.
González kills off Severino, even as Inés has his child, Claudio (also Kevin Emilio Pérez) who helps propel the constantly shifting plot. At Severino’s funeral in Puerto Rico it is revealed that Celeste, too, has a child, Brunilda (Nicole Betancourt, again). Some of the attendees confess dirty doings with flags that have political significance.
Clearly, Zoetrope often becomes difficult to follow for non-Spanish speakers. The dearth of realistic sets makes knowing which location is which confusing, despite the occasional descriptive titles. Then, the fact that most of the actors—all of whom are terrific—play several parts in a rapidly time-shifting plot makes figuring out who’s who and who is in a relationship with whom difficult to ascertain. Why is Puerto Rican independence glossed over? How does Claudio become a filmmaker? It’s the debut of his movie that ends Zoetrope.
The play—a tad over-written—does paint a vivid portrait of many intertwining relationships but never coalesces into a whole despite the efforts of director González.
Ninety percent of the play is spoken in Spanish. The super-title translations seem to be quite accurate, although it’s possible to miss some hidden meanings. Many in the audience laughed at situations I found quite dark and emotional. Perhaps some of the symbolism and the deeper meaning of the words eluded me?
González writes colorful, often profane, dialogue which waxes philosophical just as often as it reveals the inner workings of these colorful people. These characters are not shrinking violets and Zoetrope turns the tiny Abrons stage into an adventurous experience—uneven, but full of life.
Zoetrope (through October 8, 2023)
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.abronsartscenter.org
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission