There's a peculiar expansiveness to the modern Mexican novel--a blending of the mystical and the carnal, the dynamic shifts from the epic to the intimate--that can be translated into English. But the translation from page to stage is infinitely more treacherous.
The final test: After the theater has revived a book its audience may not know, will the show turn them on to the original? With two new adaptations of Mexican novels--Margarita Galban's of Mariano Azuela's "Los de Abajo" at BFA and Josephine Ramirez's of Rosario Castellanos' "Balun Canan: The Nine Guardians" at the Mark Taper Forum's literary cabaret at the Itchey Foot, the answer is very mixed. Both shows whet curiosity, but mainly to see how much of each novel was missed on stage.
"Los de Abajo" translates as "The Underdogs," the outgunned, outmaneuvered rebel campesinos of the 1910 revolution. Azuela wrote it in the dispirited aftermath of a war against the landowners that didn't fully succeed, but did change Mexico forever. Azuela's alter ego is Luis (Ruben Garfias, who also did the English translation), a radical who is forcibly drafted into the Federales, then escapes to join the revolution. He's an intellectual fond of lecturing to his working-class comrades, led by Demetrio (Tonyo Melendez), about the revolution's meaning.
A nice irony, which underscores Azuela's view of the revolution's rotten core. But Galban cannot decide whether to stage a dutiful tragedy about heroes, or a bitterly cynical drama of power and underdeveloped ideals. Using recurring corridos as a narrative chorus, she assembles clunky stage pictures meant to mimic Diego Rivera's murals. But at least in the English-speaking performances, her actors tend to feel lost in the pictures--and sound lost as well.
We also hear a corrido before "Balun Canan" begins. But unlike the bulging cast and production at BFA, things are trim and economic at the Itchey Foot. There are no pictures except for the actors' faces, accenting a moment in the text. And Castellanos, who was a strong, vivid poet, wraps her tale of the fall of the landed Arguello family in a blanket of luxuriant prose.
Again, the novelist's alter ego observes a collapsing world, but here, Vanessa Marquez as the girl-narrator becomes the bestirred voice of innocence, shocked at the misery of the rebelling Indians she learns to love. Slender and strong as a reed, Marquez's girl speaks with an authentic love and conviction that never opts for sentimentalizing.
Sal Lopez brings quietly comic moments to his Mario, the girl's doomed brother, but his fellow ensemble members seem less sure. Enrique Castillo, William Marquez and Lupe Ontiveros rarely put any shadings into the words: Their key tool here, their voices, just fail them. Adapter Ramirez hasn't really failed Castellanos, yet it could be a small injustice to trim the novel's involved plot to fit the literary cabaret's hourlong format. At least, we have this hour.
"Los de Abajo," Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, 421 N. Avenue 19, Lincoln Heights, Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. (alternates weekly in Spanish and English). Ends Dec. 15. $6-$15; (213) 225-4044. Running time: 2 hours.
"Balun Canan: The Nine Guardians," Itchey Foot Ristorante, 801 W. Temple St., Los Angeles, Sundays, 6 p.m. Ends Oct. 27. $10; (213) 972-7392. Running time: 1 hour.