The New York Critic: Reviews

The Almada International Festival

Almada, a small municipality across the Tagus River from Portugal's capital city, held its 24th annual International Theatre Festival this month. It offered a broad range of forms and tones, and I was happy to see some wonderful productions.

Nada, ou o silencio de Beckett (Nothing, or The Silence of Beckett) was marvelous puppet theatre by Joao Paulo Seara Cardoso from the Teatro de Marionetas do Porto, Portugal. The play had nearly no dialogue, and silence suits puppetry perfectly. The visual script was based on the plays of Beckett. The images were striking: puppets carrying trunks, puppets in straight jackets, puppets trembling. The three puppeteers were themselves part of the stage picture. The piece referenced the familiar Beckett plays, Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, Act without Words. These puppet masters they created a mysterious and suggestive reality. There's no faulting their technique, but I'd like to see work from them that doesn't reference the work of other artists.

Rabih Abou-Khalil, a Lebanese musician, is said to have begun his work as a young child, playing the oud (an Arabian lute). As an adult, he combined the Arabic tradition with classical European ideas. He played in Almada with a small group of instrumentalists on drums, guitar, accordion and other instruments. They were joined by two singers, Ricardo Ribeiro and Tania Oleiro. The music was enchanting, mesmerizing. The smooth, longing quality of fado singing blended with the Arabic rhythms perfectly, producing its own musical truth. Portuguese is as beautiful sung as spoken, and I never missed a moment of the art because of the language barrier. From the Teatro Nacional de S. Joao, Portugal

Sizwe Banzi est Mort (Sizwe Banzi is Dead) is one of Athol Fugard's most highly regarded scripts, the South African tale of a black worker who must assume the identity of a dead man because of the Draconian restrictions of the apartheid system. Fugard and his actors wrote it in the small township where it's set, and it opened in Cape Town in 1972. It was a courageous premier, politically committed and legally on the edge. After it achieved international success, its productions still met with police harassment in South Africa.

Almada presented the play in French in a famous production from director Peter Brook and the Centre International de Creations Theatrales, Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris. It had a flavor I'd never seen from the famous director - neither the elegant simplicity of Tierno Bokar (2005) nor the subtle specificity of The Cherry Orchard (1988). This was a comic, down-to-earth tone, with an undeniable, realist statement. Beneath the clowning we found the death of personality under the weight of authority.

Cancoes Heroicas (Heroic Songs), from the Criacao Colectiva, was a recital, in Portuguese, of poems and songs by several Portuguese poets. The music was written by one of the 20th century's most important Portuguese artists, Fernando Lopes-Graca, who requested many of the poets to write for the suite. It's comprised of commanding, complex music, mixing key-based and atonal styles, with poetry that might begin as spoken words and then rise to song. The musical pieces were banned under the dictator Antonio Salazar, although the texts were available, and the piece debuted only last October. All the poems address our social consciousness. One song in the suite, lyrics by José Gomes Ferreira, begins:
Wake up
Wake up
Men who are sleeping
Rocking the pain
Of the vile silences

The presentation was formal, very traditional, with actors in a formal row on a bare stage. We support any theatre that's survived repression, but to hear such political work in such a dignified recital is a rare treasure. What an honor it was to witness it!

- Steve Capra
July 2007