Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wednesday Evening in Hell's Kitchen: The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater presents "El Encuentro de Juan Bobo y Pedro Animal" at Ramón Aponte Park

At 6 p.m. we were in Ramón Aponte Park on West 47th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues to catch a "Special VIP-Press Presentation" of what proved to be a captivating tickle of a show, El Encuentro de Juan Bobo y Pedro Animal,

the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater's 44th annual summer tour, with this production a collaboration with New York's Latino Children's Theater, Teatro SEA.

The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater (PRTT), whose old firehouse building is just down the block and across the street, is a pioneer among institutions furthering Latino/Hispanic drama and dramatists and presenting truly bilingual productions. It began in 1967, founded by the legendary Miriam Colón Valle (on hand today; we first saw her on film four decades ago in The Possession of Joel Delaney)

following the highly successful run of the English-language production of The Oxcart (La Carreta), René Marqués' classic drama of Puerto Rican migration. The play was directed by Lloyd Richards and starred Miriam Colón Valle, the late Raúl Juliá (we saw him onstage once and we'll never forget his Othello in Central Park), and Lucy Boscana.

Realizing that such a professional production wasn't accessible to most of the families from economically disadvantaged communities, Ms. Colón Valle, PRTT's Founder and Artistic Director, made the decision to present the play free of charge in New York City streets with funding secured from then-Mayor John Lindsay. We actually caught one of their shows in Crown Heights on President Street back in what seemed to us the revelation of street theater as political protest. (That's Miriam on the right, below.)

PRTT's lasting impact is felt in 40 years of continued theater programming and audience development, including the introduction of new and significant Hispanic voices to the professional theater mainstream; a unique, culturally diverse model for playwright development and enrichment; cultivation of an awareness of the theater as a viable career for economically disadvantaged youths; and year-round Spanish and English language offerings through mainstage productions, a summer tour, a training program and a Playwrights' lab.

Teatro SEA, the theater wing of the Society of the Educational Arts - Sociedad Educativa de las Artes (SEA), with headquarters at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center on the Lower East Side in New York City, offers a year-round season of professional Puppet and Children’s Theater, as well as art and puppetry workshops, and lots more -- including, of course, El Encuentro de Juan Bobo y Pedro Animal.

Today's show featured two talented performers, Jesús E. Martínez (Pedro) and the show's director/producer Manuel A. Morán (Juan), in a delightful adaptation of Borinquen and Quisqueya folktales about two good-hearted noodleheads, the well-meaning but naively foolish Puerto Rican Juan Bobo and the sweetly inept Dominican simpleton Pedro Animal.

Both are classic fools who can do nothing right, although somehow in these stories, everything comes out right in the end. They embody honest, simple, uncorrupted country folk (el jibaro), and they appear in just about every culture from the Caribbean to Asia and Africa.

The puppet show within the context of the two performers "accidentally" meeting to do their acts in the same place features beautiful, full-bodied rod puppets created especially by production designer and puppet master José López Alemán.

The show also featured three wonderful musicians who sometimes got into the act: Harold Gutiérrez on percussion, Jacob Teichroew on sax, and George Saenz on accordion and more.

The stories, which may be familiar to those who know Puerto Rican and Dominican folklore, were told in a style that, first of all, is truly bilingual and accessible whether an audience member has a knowledge of just English or just Spanish, and which worked for both children and adults. Well, at least this adult, and from what we could tell, most others in the crowd.

Especially wonderful was the use of kids from the audience, called on to assist with the production, as when kids were called up to make the animal sounds in the tale of Juan Bobo and the pig. A boy named Mario volunteered to play the chickens in two languages, with audience members Alissa and Peggy supplying the sounds of flies and the well-dressed sow.

You can catch six more performances of this wonderful show from now until Sunday, August 28, in parks and venues in several boroughs, including Staten Island.

Thanks to everyone involved in this production: more than those we've mentioned here, but at the end Miriam Colón Valle told us those who must have worked really hard behind the scenes to make this show work so well.

We're grateful we got to see El Encuentro de Juan Bobo y Pedro Animal. We would have liked to stay for some of the free food and drink today's performance.

But we were rushing off to try to catch another play, Sangre, in Central Park.

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