MEXICO CITY— For the Latin American theater, the headlines on today's front page have become as rich a source of inspiration as the hallowed classics of Lope de Vega or Garcia Lorca. Exile, revolution, political repression, the foreign debt and drug trafficking are themes that are increasingly capturing the imagination of Latin American playwrights and directors, and it is precisely those concerns that permeate the works that will be performed at the monthlong Festival Latino at the Public Theater in New York, which begins this week.
In all, seven dramatic plays will be presented at the festival, some in Spanish, others in English or with simultaneous translation provided. A majority of the works are new, while a few are adaptations of novels, short stories or recognized international classics, recast to make them more pertinent to Latin American audiences. But whatever their origin, their principal objective is to address the social and political reality around them.
''The headline in a Chilean newspaper can be much stronger for us, may the gods of literature forgive me, than a work of Brecht, because it is something that belongs to us and resounds in our innards,'' said the Chilean director Raul Osorio, leader of the Investigative Theater Troupe that will present the allegorical ''No Mas.'' ''If a friend of mine has been tortured and he tells me about it, that has more force than literature. Our reality is much stronger, both more tense and intense, than any fiction I can find.''
This year's festival, the 13th, has a distinct Caribbean flavor, with two of its plays originating from Venezuela and others representing the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Colombia, along with Mexico and Chile. In addition, three musicals written by Cuban-American playwrights are on the festival bill, as are a series of six films called ''Dangerous Loves,'' based on short stories of the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the annual ''Concert for Peace and Friendship,'' this year featuring Dizzy Gillespie and jazz and salsa players from the Caribbean.
''Our goal is to develop a truly Latin dramaturgy, and in order to do that, we must always try to address themes with which our public identifies,'' said Cecilia Vega, who was born in El Salvador and is the co-director of the festival with Oscar Ciccone, a native of Argentina. ''Last year our theme was human rights, and this year we also have a pronounced orientation toward problems that relate to daily life.''
The play most likely to be familiar to New York audiences is an adaptation by the Fundacion Rajatabla of Venezuela of Mr. Garcia Marquez's novella ''No One Writes to the Colonel'' (Tuesday through Saturday). Set in a decaying Colombian port, it focuses on a retired military officer who has patiently been waiting decades to receive the first payment on the pension due him for services to his country. At the same time, the old man is struggling to emerge from the depression caused by the recent murder of his only son, a cockfighting enthusiast whose prize rooster is now the colonel's only prospect of making enough money to go on living.
''This story is one of tremendous topicality for Latin Americans, who hope that their hopes will not come to naught,'' said the director Carlos Gimenez, who adapted the story to the stage with other members of his Caracas-based company. ''All of us in Latin America are always waiting for a letter that never comes, always hoping that something will come along to change our destinies and the unjust fates of our countries.''
When Mr. Gimenez first read Mr. Garcia Marquez's novella, ''it read to me like the saga of a tragic personage, like King Lear,'' he said. In translating the story to the stage, he has emphasized that tragic aspect with a set he describes as ''permanently immersed in a climate of rain.'' As time passes and the colonel's quest seems further and further from fulfillment, the walls of his house crumble and his sadness at the death of his son grows into hallucination. This proud man, who refuses to wear a hat because ''that way I don't have to take it off to anyone,'' is even forced to exchange greetings with his son's murderer, who continues to roam the streets unpunished.
''This is a tragedy about daily life, about the common man who believes that happiness and joy are possible in the midst of a social landscape as terrible as ours,'' Mr. Gimenez said. ''When things happen to us in Latin America, it is never by halves. There is no equilibrium, so when it rains, towns get inundated and disappear, and when we have a revolution, half the population dies.''
Ultimately, however, the play ends on an optimistic note. When the colonel's wife chastises him, saying ''You can't eat illusions,'' he corrects her: ''You can't eat them, but they do nourish you.'' As we take leave of the colonel, he is sitting in a rocking chair at his window, hoping the next mail delivery will bring the letter he wants.
The script developed for ''El Paso, o la Parabola del Camino'' (''El Paso, or the Parable of the Path'') by the Candelaria Theater Company of Colombia begins much like ''No One Writes to the Colonel,'' with a group of people waiting hopefully in a small, desolate Colombian town, this time stranded at an inn by the breakdown of their car. But before the play ends, a clandestine arms shipment has been exchanged for a suitcase full of money and one of the innocent bystanders has been killed by two mysterious strangers.
By Larry Rohter
July 30, 1989
Source: The New York Times