Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Carlos García Servín.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross defined the “five stages of grief” as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, saying that these are necessary steps we all go through when a loved one dies. What happens, though, if someone simply gets stuck in the first one? What if medical science helps foster that denial by allowing some significant part of the loved one to live on, as in a heart transplant? Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz’ latest play, Exquisita Agonia, explores this question and others as his characters struggle with profound changes in their lives and debate the nature of memory itself.
The play, presented in Spanish with English supertitles (that on opening night froze up on several occasions), brings us into the life of famous opera singer Millie Marcel (Rosario Vargas), who has lost her composer husband Lorenzo in a car accident. His heart, however, has saved the life of Amér (Israel Balza), which she sees as a kind of consolation. In her grief and romantic obsession, she determines that she has to meet him in order to see that her beloved husband is still a part of the world in some way. By meeting this young man and inviting him into her family, she feels that she can remain close to Lorenzo.
Amér, as it happens, is having similar thoughts. He is experiencing emotions, thoughts, and new tastes that he is certain must come from memories embedded in his new heart. He even talks to Lorenzo, which his protective brother Imanol (Sándor Menéndez) finds odd. Though the transplant doctor (Elio Leturia) tells him that the heart is just a muscle and has no capability to hold memories, Amér is convinced that Lorenzo lives within him, and when Millie finally finds him and invites him and Imanol to dinner, he doesn’t even consider saying no.
What follows is an extended scene that would make any telenovela writer proud: as Amér and Imanol get together with Millie and her family, which includes her tattoo-artist daughter Romy (Andrea Leguizamón) and her caustic, angry son Tommy (Victor Salinas), all sorts of secrets find their winding way to the surface and Millie’s rose-colored memories of the past are called deeply into question.
Director Marcela Muñoz maintains an expressionistic style throughout, making extensive use of lighting changes to allow moments when only certain characters are in focus. The result is a play in which reality is subordinated to dreamlike emotion and memory may be even more important than reality. As the veracity of memory unravels in her characters, Muñoz plays more and more with visual composition that emphasizes that confusion, including a long period of time when Tommy crouches atop a piano while having a meltdown.
Vargas is exquisite here; her Millie is determined to maintain control no matter what is thrown at her, utterly focused on holding onto her memories whether they are true or not. Balza, too, creates a nicely developed character here: a young man whose confusion about his own salvaged life leads him to need the contact of a family that, he discovers, is as broken as he is. The two leads contrast greatly with the leave-it-all-on-the-stage performance of Salinas, whose Tommy absolutely takes over the final third of the show in his anger, pain, and frustration. Cruz and Muñoz build a carefully constructed world of inward-focused emotion and then blow it sky high with passionate exasperation and acrimony. It’s fascinating to watch, and well worth seeing.
Exquisita Agonia is part of Destinos Festival and now playing at Aguijon Theatre, 2707 N. Laramie, Chicago, through Nov 24. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.