ART's "Arrabal": "El Contacto"?

The Cast of ART's "Arrabal"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

Back in 1999, a theatrical concept was developed that was described as a “dance play”, in essence three separate one-act playlets with little or no dialogue, with a “Book” by playwright John Weidman, entitled Contact. While some (including this critic) viewed it as theatrical only in the broadest sense of the term, it went on to win four Tony Awards including Best Musical. Fast forward two decades later; Weidman is now credited with the “Book” for a new tango-infused “dance theater piece” at ART, Arrabal, centered around the horrific era in Argentina when the government ruled by the right-wing military junta seized power (in 1976) and for the next eight years “disappeared” some thirty thousand resisters. The story of Arrabal is that of an eighteen-year-old woman searching for the truth of her own father's disappearance when she was an infant, as she navigates the underground world of Buenos Aires tango clubs.

Arrabal, (which literally means “neighborhood”), played by Micaela Spina, receives a letter from her father's best friend, El Puma (Carlos Rivarola) requesting that she come to B.A., where he runs a tango bar. Her father was one of the desaparecidos who disappeared during the period of the 1970's. She interacts with characters like Berta (Valeria Celurso), El Diende (Mario Rizzo), Nicole (Soledad Buss) and Juan (Juan Cupini), but mostly with her Abuela (“Grandmother”) played by Marianella Massarotti, who joins with the other families questioning what truly happened to their (literally) lost ones. When she finally learns the truth, it comes as no surprise if you have been following what little story there is. In fact, there is really nothing that isn't telegraphed, no subtlety or nuance. There is of course the dancing to be admired, but largely non-contextual, disjointed and uninvolving, unless dance shows are your thing. Comic relief is provided by the rubber-jointed Rizzo, reminiscent of the character Evil-Eye Fleegle in the Al Capp newspaper cartoon strip Li'l Abner.

Arrabal can be seen as a Latin American Contact, story told through dance, with Music by Gustavo Santaolalla and Bajofondo, Choreography by Julio Zurita (who also plays the rolf of the “disappeared” father, Rudolfo), Directed and Co-choreographed by Sergi Trujillo, with an on-stage band, Orquesta Bajofonderos. Previously presented in Toronto in 2014 and Bogota in 2016, this is its first United States production, at ninety intermissionless minutes. The technical credits are impressive, with effective Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez, unabashedly sexy Costume Design by Clint Ramos, dramatic Lighting Design by Vincent Colbert, Sound Design by Peter McBoyle and Projection Design by Peter Nigrini.

But it is of course the dancing that matters most, and this is accomplished by a troupe that clearly knows what it is about. If this is the kind of experience you've enjoyed in previous dance pieces, you won't be disappointed. It should be noted that, before performances, there are tango lessons offered, and afterwards, a chance to join in on the dancing, literally in the aisles. One can only guess at what the future will hold as we attend Trump the Musical. And will there be dancing then, perhaps in the streets?

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