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Review: Starry support for ‘Ay, Carmela!’ at Hudson Mainstage Theatre

Alejandro Furth and Eloísa Maturén play a pair of vaudeville performers forced to entertain Gen. Francisco Franco's troops during the Spanish Civil War in the Hudson Mainstage Theatre production of "Ay, Carmela!," which features a set by Frank Gehry and compositions by Gustavo Dudamel.

Alejandro Furth and Eloísa Maturén play a pair of vaudeville performers forced to entertain Gen. Francisco Franco’s troops during the Spanish Civil War in the Hudson Mainstage Theatre production of “Ay, Carmela!,” which features a set by Frank Gehry and compositions by Gustavo Dudamel.

(Jessica Sherman Photography)

Frank Gehry’s set for “Ay, Carmela!” at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre may not make any lists of the architect’s most impressive designs.

It’s a fairly typical set for an intimate theater. Audiences hoping for a black-box-scale Disney Hall or Guggenheim Bilbao may discern a faint family resemblance in the undulating texture of a grey backdrop.

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Or maybe they’ll identify a bold architectural eye in the orange-painted gramophone, or in the intricate frieze above the stage evoking Goya’s print series “Disasters of War.” Would we read these choices differently if the designer had a different name?

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“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” William Butler Yeats asks in “Among School Children”; the question feels pertinent to this production of the Stella Adler Theatre, which also features music composed by L.A. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel and a performance by Dudamel’s estranged wife, Eloísa Maturén, the radiantly beautiful dancer and actor who filed for divorce from him last March.

Such a starry roster, with such an intriguing back story, can make it hard to concentrate on a play.

But it could also be said that “Ay, Carmela!,” an absurdist black comedy by the Spanish playwright José Sanchez Sinisterra, adapted by Nilo Cruz and Catalina Botello, is not easy to follow.

The play is set in the town of Belchite, Spain, in the winter of 1938. For Spanish audiences, this time and place are deeply evocative: Belchite, destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, is today a ghost town, a memorial to the conflict between the Spanish Republicans and Gen. Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces.

In 1939, Franco established a dictatorship in Spain, which didn’t end until his death in 1975.

L.A. audiences will not necessarily understand the connections between these events and America’s current political climate. Newsreels about the Spanish Civil War are shown before the curtain, but further context would be useful for those less familiar with the symbolism and rhetoric of this period of history.

Assuming a shared knowledge, the play explains little. As the story begins, a dejected man, Paulino (Alejandro Furth), drinks alone on the stage of the empty Goya Theater. He sings a snippet of a song, “Ay, Carmela!,” an anthem of the doomed Spanish Republicans (according to Wikipedia; it would help audiences to know this beforehand).

A beautiful woman appears in the doorway: his wife and vaudeville partner, also named Carmela (Maturén). Paulino is surprised to see her because she is dead.

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Paulino may very well be dead, too: He seems stuck in a kind of purgatory in the empty theater, forced to relive the events that led to Carmela’s demise.

Their fractious reunion -- they’re the sort of lovers who express their passion by continuously squabbling -- is interwoven with flashbacks to their disastrous final performance. Caught behind enemy lines, they were forced to do a show for Nationalist soldiers along with a group of condemned prisoners.

An unseen lieutenant in the lighting booth has written them a new script that mocks the prisoners. Paulino, an apolitical artist, or as Carmela calls him, “a little coward,” is willing to do anything to survive. Carmela herself is unable to conceal her loyalist sympathies even when enemy troops (represented by an appropriately haughty Tomás Ducurgez, sitting with the audience) fill the house.

The story raises valuable questions about the purpose of art and the duties of human beings both to one another and to themselves. But it does so in a rambling fashion, with much bickering, philosophizing and Beckettian clowning, which drag as the play’s outcome becomes more and more inevitable.

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Furth is an affable, lively performer, and Maturén, especially while Flamenco dancing, is impossible not to watch, but under Alberto Arvelo’s direction, they never quite achieve the rapport that would lend true pathos to this existential comedy.

“Ay, Carmela!” Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 13. $30. (323) 960-7792 or www.plays411.com/aycarmela. Running time: 2 hours.


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