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'La Virgen' captures passion and pathos of youth

June 25, 2003|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

To some of us, there's nothing spookier than the sound of a train whistle in the dead of night. Imagine the train in limbo, and the effect is doubly frightening.

Set in a railway station in the afterlife, Elizabeth Mena's "La Virgen Triste" (The Sad Virgin) is an unsettling, genuinely evocative one-woman play featuring Cuban-born Vivian Acosta in her first Los Angeles appearance. The production, at the John Anson Ford's indoor space, [Inside] the Ford, is part of the Ford Theatre Foundation's Latino Arts Festival International.

Presented in Spanish with English supertitles, the play concerns Cuban literary icon Juana Borrero, a 19th century poet-painter notable for her passionate correspondence with the literary lions of her day. In her adolescence, Borrero pledged eternal faithfulness to a prominent poet who then died, leaving her a virgin. She subsequently became betrothed to another man who, in honor of her previous vow, agreed to a platonic marriage. But before her resolve could be tested by time, Borrero died at 18.

If one ignores the Freudian implications of her obdurate chastity, her plight is a poignant one. Her passionate literary effusions make it all the more ironic that their author died before experiencing physical love. Mena's metaphysical, highly poetical drama hinges on the frustrations and pathos of Borrero's early death.

Directed by Jose Gonzalez, the play is a powerful vehicle for Acosta, who commands the stage with a florid, larger-than-life presence of a sort not often seen in the Land of the Method. Acosta plays both Borrero, a mournful spirit bemoaning the loss of her past loves, and a mysterious crone who is trying to coax her "into the light."

The physical demands of the role are immense. As the wizened, arthritic crone, Acosta moves with the studied deliberation of a tai chi master, uncoiling to a spring-like athleticism when she shifts to her younger role. Her voice, a throaty contralto, bottoms out with a baritone croak, then vaults back to a girlish falsetto.

Acosta's primary props are a trunk, a candelabrum and a yellowed wedding veil -- all used to disturbing effect in Gonzalez's taut staging, which also features music by Juan Antonio Leyva, lighting by Carlos Repilado and costume design by Raul Martin.

The end result is riveting. In fact, those who don't speak Spanish may find their attention so fixed on Acosta that they miss whole passages of Mena's supertitled text.


'La Virgen Triste' (The Sad Virgin)

Where: [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood

When: Tonight, 8:30

Price: $20

Contact: (323) 461-3673

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

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