References To Salvador Dali Make Me Hot is a production from Troupel Theatre Company, a company which traverses two continents, and this international influence is at the heart of this production. References is a love note from writer José Rivera to the Spanish artist Salvador Dali and, perhaps even more so, Dali’s great friend the playwright Federico Garcia Lorca.
The title of the play speaks for itself, and what you see is what you get. References has all the surrealism of a Dali painting, and all the magic realism of Lorca’s style. However, these are very big shoes to fill. Directors Jennifer Collins and Kala Michaela have obviously put a lot of thought into an incredibly challenging text, but References remains a challenge to decipher. When a show requires several pages of information to make sense to an audience then it is in dangerous territory. There’s a sense that Dali might have a received a similar response when revealing his shocking paintings for the first time, but References leaves more confusion.
The action shifts between the realistic narrative of a soldier, Benito (Abrahan Arsis), returning to his disillusioned wife Gabriela (Paula Berenguer), and Gabriela’s dream-like world which steps into a Dali painting, a world of talking cats (Elena Saurel) and coyotes (Andrew Haig), and a violin-playing-moon (Cristian Beaumont). Arsis’s performance is hit and miss, sometimes he has excellent comic timing and tone, and at others it feels like this is almost a mistake as the text gets lost in translation. More importantly, the comedic traits of Benito’s character make him feel more of a caricature, a device to trouble Gabriela, whose complexity of character is at the other end of the scale. Berenguer is a powerhouse as she seemingly explores every emotion possible, and as a result is completely convincing.
I never thought I’d find myself wishing for more interplay between a coyote and a cat but the sexual tension between these actors is immense, and the banter of witty power play is expressed with better clarity than some of Rivera’s more obscure descriptions. Beaumont’s performance is also enigmatic, he commands the stage with the presence and romance suited to a character of his stature so that Rivera’s lyrical language seems as natural as breathing to him. However, I feel the delivery is let down by the backdrop which isn’t nearly as stylistic as the subject to which it refers.
Sceneographer Emily Harwood is doing her best Blue Peter impression making cacti out of egg boxes, and even if it nods to art and reimagining the way in which we look at things, the overall effect is dull and disappointing. You would expect the investment into the visual elements of this production to be much more unusual and tell a story all of its own, but leaving the actors to it gives them too much to do. Furthermore, Collins and Michaela choose to illustrate certain moments within the play with physical theatre, and although this attention to detail means that the interaction and distance between characters is as telling as their expressions, the lack of imaginative choreography in the more dance-like moments lacks impact, or rather the most important tool on an artist’s palette: style.
Although References delivers on the surrealism and is one of those rare pieces of theatre that makes you want to discover more about the subject, Troupel theatre company fails to deliver what the audience might expect in regard to the production values. The references are only references, so anybody who isn’t an avid fan will be lost. Looking at the end product, the sensuality of the play is better communicated than what lies beneath the surface.
References To Salvador Dali Make Me Hot plays at the Courtyard Theatre until 26 Jan. For more information and tickets, click here.