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The Rules Don't Matter With This Troupe Either

Argentina's De La Guarda stresses the primal and leaves the meaning up to its youthful audience.

March 04, 2001|ROBERT BURNS | Robert Burns is a Times staff writer

LAS VEGAS — A show from Argentina by way of New York is putting a new spin on this city's reputation for being over the top.

To a large degree, De La Guarda's "Villa Villa," at the Rio Resort in Las Vegas and at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York, takes place over your head. Using rock-climbing ropes, actors fly from one side of the warehouse-like space to the other, occasionally dropping into an audience that is standing, dancing or being forcibly moved.

"We thought, in a way, like we were the audience," says Pichon Baldinu, who launched the De La Guarda troupe in 1993 with Diqui James and composer Gaby Kerpel. "We wanted a show where you can feel you are really involved, where there's no place without action, without moving. It's really a party where people can forget that they came to see a theater piece; and they can feel free and can talk, move, shout."

De La Guarda is not only pushing the boundaries of Las Vegas entertainment, but also traditional theater--and that's exactly the intent.

"Villa Villa" has been likened to a cross between Cirque du Soleil and a mosh pit. It has no plot or discernible dialogue. Is the man on the platform who's yelling in an undecipherable language a dictator or a spurned lover? Two girls run back and forth across a wall. Are they chasing each other or is it some representation of the urban rat race?

"It's not really important to fix a meaning," Baldinu says.

Indeed, the audience comes up with its own interpretations.

"I like very much when I hear different stories about the same part of the show," James, 35, says in a phone interview from Buenos Aires. "I like when they really believe in that story."

And then there's the music, both recorded and live, which ranges from subdued rain-forest sounds to chants, drumming and dance music. One New York reviewer suggested earplugs.

"We tried to get the tribal aspect of the human being," says Kerpel, 36. "That's why we have a lot of percussion and voices. On the other hand, the parts that play live are played by the performers; this aspect of the music is very primal."

Elements are also taken from Argentine folk music: "Actually it's very close to African music," Kerpel says by phone from Buenos Aires.

All of this makes De La Guarda (the name is a take on "guardian angel" in Spanish) a little hard to explain to your average musical theater aficionado. A show in which the audience members go through a storm, get wet and, for a lucky few, are lifted into the air, is clearly seeking a different demographic.

It is also the reason De La Guarda has relied on word-of-mouth for its success in New York, where it opened off-Broadway in 1998.

"Clearly this is a show that was made for a younger person," says Jeffrey Seller, one of the producers of "Rent," who helped bring De La Guarda to the United States. "And for a person who's looking for a more visceral, more physical, more active experience."

"Rent" brought in on average the youngest audience since records were kept for Broadway shows, says Seller, 36.

" 'Rent' is breaking the rules of musical theater," Seller says. "This is breaking the rules of theater."

It took a while for De La Guarda to take off in New York, but it could take even longer in Las Vegas. People expecting the fixed smile of a showgirl will be a bit discombobulated when a De La Guarda cast member approaches them semi-crouched with a feral expression on her face. And those wanting sequins and spandex might not be ready for the thrift-store business suits that cast members wear.

Everyone associated with the show points out that, because the show is hard to describe, it took a while for De La Guarda to hit its stride in New York. But there's a clear feeling that the box office in Las Vegas, where it opened in October, has been disappointing.

"We found that with the show in New York, it took us six months to gain enough momentum to really start to sell tickets on a consistent basis," says Stephen Paladie, the general manager who was with the show in New York and is now in Las Vegas. "We've been performing 12 or 14 weeks [in Las Vegas]. We are adapting to our new environment."

The transient nature of Las Vegas audiences could stretch out that six-month period. "It's more complicated because in New York you can create the word of mouth; there are a lot of people living there," Baldinu says. "It is creating a new experience and, as always, new experiences take longer to become popular."

Still, both Baldinu and James delight in the idea of Las Vegas as a venue for De La Guarda.

"People that go there want to be surprised," James says. "They want to find that crazy city that everybody talks about."

Baldinu is more direct: "I'm very excited about being there and seeing how the show works. People that go there to have this experience of having one week of being out of the real world--it's like a Disneyland for adults. It's good for us to see the show working and playing with people in that situation."

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