A Mexican acquaintance once told this writer that in order to ever understand Mexico, one must read "Pedro Paramo."
Rejecting chronological order and standard character development, Juan Rulfo's 1955 story--about a powerful landowner and the deathly legacy he inflicted on an entire community--set an entire generation of Latin American writers, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Carlos Fuentes marching in a new, experimental direction.
Thirty-two years is a long time for such a landmark from our neighboring culture to get up north and into a theater, but it is finally here, thanks to adapter/director Roberto Ramirez and the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts.
The long delay may also reflect the uphill struggle Rulfo's complex but compact tome (a mere 123 pages in the English translation) poses to a dramatist. Ramirez's play makes a fascinating case study of what can and can't be done in the re-tailoring of a book for the stage.
What's immediately clear to a reader of the novel is the directness of its dramatic conflict, even as you're awash in poetic landscapes, dreamscapes, ghosts, flashbacks and inner monologues. Juan Preciado (Danny De La Paz) has trekked back to Comala, the bleak, desertified domain of his father, Pedro Paramo (Ruben Garfias). He wants to come to terms with how this ruthless man could have so dominated a town and the people in it.
Juan finds a kind of village of the damned--or more exactly, a village in purgatory (the local priest, played by Charles Bazaldua, fled to fight in Pancho Villa's revolution before he could pardon the villagers' souls).
Ramirez's extremely faithful adaptation works marvelously early on, for Rulfo's own narrative is largely composed of dialogues, and we are very much with Juan, trying to unravel Comala's mystery.
But what is precisely so invigorating and seductive in Rulfo's hands--a rapid, dizzying flashing back and forth across time and characters--delivers diminishing returns under Ramirez's control. As the old woman Eduviges (Margarita Cordova) recalls the bloody past of the Paramos, as those stories slowly begin to take over and as the characters in those stories take us into their inner worlds, the play's spine can't help but crack under the pressure. This is one show where non-readers of the original source are truly lost souls.
Despite his close tracking of the text, Ramirez has skimped on two crucial pieces of information: the town's surreal fiesta, replete with a circus and a deafening, endless round of bell-ringing on the day of the death of Pedro's only love, Susana (Roxanna Cordova-Soto); and how Pedro's deep resentment of the fiesta triggers his revengeful shutting down of his ranching business--in effect, shutting down Comala. A couple of moments of bells on tape and a scowl on Garfias' face hardly suffices.
You sense the pressure to wrap things up (the show clocks in at more than two hours) without getting things down quite as they should. Rulfo's pulsating landscapes, for instance: They're a central character in the novel, but invisible on the Theatre/Teatro stage. The actors miming props are fine (especially in a tale about ghosts), but production money appears to have run out before Estela Scarlata finished the set.
The desert's brutal heat is better put across by Luis Guajardo's lights (which greatly help Ramirez in the daunting task of pacing from scene to scene, with very few blackouts). However, the English-speaking cast (alternating with the Spanish-speaking one) would do well generating some of its own heat--especially De La Paz and Cordova-Soto, as both Susana and the priest's daughter.
Garfias' Pedro suggests a Mafia padrone (he's often addressed as patron and doles out orders accordingly). Bazaldua manages a nice shift between the tortured priest and a proud man who can't bow to the landlord.
Performances are at 421 N. Avenue 19, in English Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m., in Spanish Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 p.m. through Nov. 22. Tickets: $9-$12; (213) 225-4044.