A promo video for ‘Ropes.” Below, actor Varín Ayala. (Click to enlarge)
To walk a tightrope is to travel in a way that’s as fraught with peril as it is delicately balanced — a daredevil method of getting from point A to point B, even if it remains indisputably the most direct path available.
In Ropes, the drama by Mexican playwright Bárbara Colio that begins previews at Red Bank’s Two River Theater Saturday, a trio of brothers walk a high-tension line between an unattainable ideal of family life on one end and, on the other, the reality of the strained relationships between themselves and their father, a world-renowned tightrope artist who abandoned them as children.
Opening February 26 and running through March 20 in Two River’s black-box Marion Huber space, the play is being presented in a new English translation by Maria Alexandria Beech — as well as (in a TRTC first, and for two special performances) the original Spanish language script. In advance of this weekend’s preview performances, the Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Varín Ayala, who plays one of the brothers. Here’s a condensed account of the conversation.
redbankgreen: You play “Paul” in this play of brothers. How does Paul fit within the hierarchy of the three siblings?
VARÍN AYALA: I’m the middle brother in this case, which is always a strange place to be. You’re always compared to the oldest… and you used to be the baby, but no more. Last time I acted at Two River, I was the father in Pinkolandia, which if you saw it was really more centered around the children in the story. This time I get to be one of the kids, which is much more exciting I think.
But it’s not fun for Paul. He wants to be seen, heard and understood. He yearns for the feeling of family, although in his case it’s a yearning for something that may not have ever been there in the first place.
So how would you sum up this play, or describe the relationship dynamic between the characters?
This play is about family, about the relationship between three brothers and an absent father. But it’s not what we think of as a ‘Latin American’ play in terms of subject matter. For one thing, it’s got nothing to do with immigration. It doesn’t even get specific about places. There’s really no mention of any particular city or country, so it’s more universal than that.
The brothers don’t see much of each other as adults, so they have a relationship that’s informed by when they were kids. What brings them together in the play is their being invited to a special event, and they’re faced with coming to terms with having a dad who’s done something so awesome, while also doing something so shitty as abandoning them.
Your involvement with this play goes way back to when it was first considered for American audiences, and you were one of the cast members who performed it during Two River’s annual Crossing Borders Festival a couple of years ago. Walk us through the early stages of how it came to have its English language premiere here in Red Bank.
It was developed through a Mexico/US Playwright Exchange program by the Lark Theater in New York. Four plays would get picked and translated, and then actors and directors would be hired, so I first came onto this project around December of 2012. We had a reading at the Lark, which is an interesting room, because you have the playwright sitting right there, and then another at Two River in 2013. Our director, Lisa Rothe, is from the Lark, and she played a big part in the play’s development from the start.
Was getting to speak in person with Bárbara Colio a helpful thing; did it illuminate some of the choices she made with this play? For instance, we’ve wondered about the rationale for having the “family business” be the art of tightrope walking, rather than a more grounded and earthbound line of work like HVAC repair or something…
To me it’s more interesting that the female playwright chose to write about a set of brothers, rather than sisters, and that she designed the father to be this almost superhuman figure who reaches for the sky. She told us she wrote the play during a series of airplane flights, going between Mexico and Coast Rica, so you might say she had her head in the clouds at the time.
Tell us about the handful of shows that you’ll be performing in Spanish, which is something that Two River has been moving toward for a couple of years now. Are these performances verbatim from the original script, or did Maria Beech have some input there as well?
There are two Spanish performances, total: a school matinee on March 3, and then the public show on March 5. And the Spanish language shows are Bárbara Colio’s original script, just the way she wrote it, which is exciting. If you think back to Pinkolandia, parts of that show were performed in a mix of English and Spanish, but the English script of Ropes is completely in English, and the Spanish is completely in Spanish.
So when you signed on to this, did you really expect to be learning and rehearsing two distinct plays in repertory? That had to present a real challenge…
We would do two weeks of rehearsals in English, followed by one week in Spanish, or we’d even alternate on the same day. One informs the other… but the jokes, a lot of the little nuances, are different, if you know what I mean. Audiences get put off when they don’t understand the jokes or references.
So it’s a challenge, but what (TRTC artistic director) John Dias and his people are doing with this play is great, as far as making different audiences feel welcome inside their theater. You can see how someone who’s new to Red Bank, or new to the U.S., might walk by and think, is this a place for me? Should I go in there? It’s like a church of another denomination.
You yourself have been a New York-based actor for years, but did you and your family members have an immigrant experience of your own?
I’m a native of Puerto Rico, who came to the mainland years ago for college. Puerto Rico was where, if you remember, the tightrope walker Karl Wallenda fell to his death. He was doing some big event for a hotel in San Juan; they had him walk between two buildings.. he was reaching for the sky, and… well, he fell!
Ropes goes up in previews on Saturday, February 20, with a special free post-show discussion on THE ART OF TRANSLATION (featuring playwright Colio, translator Beech, and moderator Stephen Kaplan of the Dramatists Guild) following the 8 p.m. performance. The play opens on Friday, February 26 and runs through March 20 with a mix of matinee and evening performances, with tickets ($20 – $65 adults). Details on special performances obtainable here. Go here for additional information on the March 5 “Day at the Theater” Spanish language performance, for which tickets are a discounted $20, with free childcare service available in the theater lobby.
Take it here for details on a special February 18 screening of The Walk, the 2015 feature film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, the tightrope daredevil who took a memorable “art crime” stroll between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The 7 pm screening comes with an introduction (and a live tightrope demo!) by Justin Provoncha and Dave Gillies of the Funicular Circus.
As part of its Inside Two River series of free arts and humanities programs — and in advance of the upcoming production of William Shakespeare’s Pericles — TRTC will host its first ever Play Reading Group event beginning next week. Led by Artistic Director John Dias, participants will read the full text of the play out loud, and discuss its language and meaning over the course of three successive Monday nights at 7 p.m.: February 22 (Acts 1 and 2); February 29 (Acts 3 and 4); and March 7 (Act 5). No experience is necessary, and copies of the play will be provided at each reading. The play-reading group will meet in the Victoria J. Mastrobuono Library; coffee, tea, and light refreshments will be provided.