By Svich, Caridad
American Theatre , Vol. 24, No. 5
Mexico is on the entertainment world's mind these days. Filmmakers Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro are making their mark in cinema. Mexican producer Salma Hayek has a top-rated TV show with the reconfigured-for-U.S.-market but originally Colombian telenovela "Ugly Betty (Betty La Fea)." The pop group RBD has its first English-language CD on the music charts. Actor Gael Garcia Bernal is Hollywood's "next big thing," as he moves fluidly between Spanish-language films, English-language semi-indies and higher-profile movies such as Babel, which was directed by Inarritu and written by another Mexican, Guillermo Arriaga.
While immigration issues remain highly debated, there is no question that the continued vitality of Mexican art is gaining visibility in American pop culture. But what kind of theatrical art is the U.S. seeing from Mexico in and out of translation?
In October '06, the Lark Play Development Center in New York City hosted a U.S./Mexico Playwright Exchange in collaboration with FONCA (Mexico's National Fund for Culture and Arts), with support from the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York. The Lark's ongoing, evolving partnership with Mexican artists and institutions is part of the theatre's larger international program. Producing director John Clinton Eisner describes it as an opportunity for "Mexican and U.S. artists to work together and deepen a discussion, through theatre, about significant social issues, while expanding an international dramatic repertoire." The U.S./Mexico exchange was devoted specifically to the translation of new contemporary Mexican plays with the reciprocal goal that new U.S. plays will also be translated and presented in Mexico.
Andrea Thome, director of the program, says that the project allows Mexican dramatists a unique chance to see firsthand how their work changes in translation from one language and culture to another as it crosses the border. Gaps in understanding are exposed. Differences are revealed. While there is often an impulse to "dismiss or bridge differences," says Thome, the art and craft of translation also serves to magnify them.
Under this lens, the artist and translator and audience are educated to the essential, transparent beauty of difference itself. In a previous incarnation of the U.S./Mexico exchange in 2003-04, co-sponsored by the U.S.-Mexico Fund for Culture, the Lark made possible the development of Silvia Pelaez's play Fiebre 107 Grados (Fever 107 Degrees) in its original language and in English-language translation. Pelaez's sexually charged piece is about the turbulent relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The play received its Mexico City premiere this past November and will be restaged there this year. Whether it will be seen in the U.S., however, is another matter entirely.
New writing from Mexico in translation is presented more prominently across the pond, ironically enough, by the Royal Court's Arena Mexico festival, than it is in the U.S., a short border crossing away. Despite the best efforts of adventurous American university theatre departments, brave companies such as Borderlands Theater in Arizona and Repertorio Espanol in New York City, and international Latino theatre festivals in Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles, vibrant new text-based work from Mexico City has a circumscribed platform in the U.S., and young contemporary playwrights from Mexico are mostly unknown by the theatre community north of the border.
"Mexico is very good at selling two things to the world: violence and the folkloric," says avant-garde writer-director Alberto Villarreal. Speaking at a NoPassport encounter (an international theatre alliance devoted to fostering hemispheric exchange) that occurred at the same time as the Lark's '06 exchange, Villarreal was joined by fellow exchange dramatists Javier Malpica, Veronica Musalem, Richard Viqueira and Pelaez. …