BY MIA LEONIN - The Miami Herald
BY MIA LEONIN - The Miami HeraldThe text of Juan Mayorga’s Spanish-language play, Cartas de Amor a Stalin (Love Letters to Stalin), is dense with diatribe, conflict, and despair. Deftly directed by Alberto Sarraín and set in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the play exposes the inner life of celebrated Soviet writer, Mikhail Bulgakov (Mauricio Rentería) whose work has been banned under Stalin. Bulgakov writes Stalin, asking him to let him write and publish freely or to give him permission to leave the country.
Early in the play Bulgakov receives a call from Stalin. Just when Stalin is about to set up a date and time for the two men to discuss Bulgakov’s fate, the call is mysteriously cut off. The desperate writer spends the rest of the play writing letters to Stalin and obsessively revisiting that conversation.
Paradoxically, in a play about writing, some of the most powerful moments are non-verbal. When Bulgakov asks his wife, Bulgakova (Mabel Roch) to pretend she is Stalin, so he can see how his letters might be received, the woman says the one time she saw Stalin, all she remembered were his hands. Bulgakova lifts her hand first tenuously, then she thrusts it in the air and in a few brusque movements, she articulates a Nazi salute, a closed fist, and a pistol. This silent moment of unspeakable expression is an example of Cartas’ heft and originality.
Performed in Spanish with English supertitles, the play runs through May 13 at Teatro Abanico in Coconut Grove. It is a production by Teatro La Ma Teodora, Teatro Abanico, and the Cuban Theater Digital Archive at the University of Miami.
A rotary phone and a beat-up typewriter give Cartas’ set design the façade of realism, and no doubt the play’s premise is historically accurate: Mikhail Bulgakov was a prolific Soviet writer whose works were banned by Stalin. However, this play is far from the Socialist Realism that dominated artistic expression during the 1920s and ’30s.
Cartas integrates elements of the fantastic, not the least of which is the presence of Stalin, superbly portrayed by Larry Villanueva. Dressed in military garb and sporting a huge moustache and maniacally arched eyebrows, Stalin enters the play via Bulgakov’s feverish hallucinations and installs as a larger-than-life force. Villanueva’s performance gives breadth to the idea of a dictator’s omnipresence. He rearranges furniture, rummages through Bulgakov’s papers, and ridicules Bulgakov’s wife. The theatergoer is caught in a hallucinatory labyrinth of Bulgakov’s mind where each turn, corner, and passageway leads to Stalin.
Mabel Roch is excellent in the role of Bulgakov’s devoted wife. Despite her fear, worry, and despair, she always projects a strong inner core, making her the play’s moral compass. As Bulgakov, Mauricio Rentería projects the intensity one would expect, but his bellicose fits of rage and frustration need to be moderated so the audience can experience his character’s ghastly transformation more fully.
Well worth seeing, Love Letters to Stalin appears to be the story of one censored writer’s descent into madness, but it is really a theatrical examination of the relationship between power, politics, and art.