If you’ve ever wondered how opera singers prepare for a choral concert, theater director Claudio Valdés Kuri has the answer. Or an answer. Or maybe just his fantasy of the answer.
That’s about as good a description as any of Kuri’s whimsical El Gallo (“rooster” in Spanish) in which a director (perhaps the “cock” of the title?) auditions five singers, then tries to whip them into shape for a performance. That all the words, both spoken and sung, are in a made-up language, incomprehensible to everyone but the performers, provides an additional element of fun and parody.
El Gallo begins with the audition for the concert. The five “singers,” each of whom appears to speak a different language, take their turns before a piano-playing “director,” who communicates in another language altogether. As he runs them through their paces, he expresses his dissatisfaction with aspects of their singing. Since they can’t understand each other, he uses flamboyant gestures and grunts to communicate, without much success.
One especially nervous female singer is completely undone and falls to the floor exhausted. The scene is hilarious with the five actors — three women and two men — able to convey earnestness, determination, or frustration with a simple change in facial expression, body language, or vocal flourish.
Once the singers are hired — miraculously, since none of them appears to satisfy the director — the rehearsal begins. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, we see them sing and act their hearts out as they try harder and harder to achieve whatever it is that the director wants from them. One female singer struggles with a huge mop, shrieking as she wrestles it to the ground. The male countertenor wanders the stage, practicing his part over and over again, then starts a tug of war with the female singer and the mop.
The nervous female hides in a corner as her colleagues work out their demons in the center of the floor. One of her male colleagues attempts to console her, with some success. The group comes together in a Maori- inspired war dance, now stripped down to their underwear, their artistic souls laid bare. All the while, the director sits at the back of the stage, slumped down as if he cannot bear watching the histrionics.
Finally, the rehearsal nears its end and the entire troupe — director and all — comes together as a cohesive unit. The scene closes with the six actors kneeling on the floor, singing their respective parts in harmony, having made their peace with the music and each other as a black curtain draws across the stage, hiding them from view.
At this point the theater lights come up, but it's not intermission. Stagehands begin to set up a performing platform in front of the curtain, and musicians take their places, almost on the laps of the OtB patrons in the first row. A conductor enters, back to the audience, and the singers and director take their places on the platform.
This is the concert they have been rehearsing for, and the singing commences. All goes well for a few minutes until it’s time for the nervous singer’s solo. She freezes, and the cohesiveness the group has worked so hard to forge begins to unravel.
The other singers shoot her nasty looks and move ever so slightly away, but she recovers and the “concert” ends in triumph, with a very funny curtain call bit as the finale.
There’s no question Kuri and his experimental company Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes are a talented bunch. Every aspect of El Gallo, including the haunting original score by Paul Barker (who also created the made-up language) and the stirring playing of the eight musicians, supports the narrative thrust of the play. Ernesto Gomez Santana is masterful as the director, able to express his disgust with the singers even with his back to us, and the five actors who portray the singers — Itzia Zerón, Irene Akiko Iida, Fabrina Melón, Edwin Calderón, and Guillermo Proal — are totally committed to Kuri’s vision, drawing personal narratives that are as uproarious, heartbreaking, or melodramatic as the material demands.
Despite its strengths, El Gallo could benefit from some editing. The rehearsal scene is overlong, and Kuri could make his point just as effectively by eliminating some of the histrionics. Even so, El Gallo caps On the Boards’ international theater season with a production that delights even as it sometimes mystifies.