This piece was originally published to Broadway World on May 26, 2017.
Sergio Trujillo was inspired to create a dance piece honoring the Argentine lives lost to the "Dirty Wars" of General Jorge Rafael Videla's corrupt national reorganization. The conflict occurring between 1976-1983 resulted in the unlawful imprisonment of the 30,000 men and women who opposed Videla.
Trujillo traveled to South America in search of finding Argentine collaborators for his tribute piece. He brought on Gustavo Santaolalla and his band Bajofondo to create the music, and Julio Zurita joined as co-choreographer. As the only American author, John Weidman (CONTACT, ASSASSINS) came onboard to write the book.
The result materialized into a 90-minute dance play called ARRABAL and is now having its US premiere as the finale to American Repertory Theater's 2016/17 season. Unlike the collection of stories with their carefully defined motifs presented at A.R.T. this season, ARRABAL aims slightly too high and wide.
The foundation of ARRABAL builds upon Argentina's tumultuous past of decaying democracy and state-sponsored terrorism while focusing on a single family affected by this conflict. The family here is a captured guerrilla fighter-slash-father, a mourning Abuela, and daughter Arrabal on a quest for closure. Despite sounding overstuffed, the title character's undeveloped journey combined with a vague use of dense themes leads to a performance piece begging to be more.
ARRABAL opens as a quasi-immersion experience when audience members entering discover on-stage tango lessons, club tables where their premium orchestra seats once lived, and a superb cast of dancers roaming the house to mingle and flirt. An amber glow of light washes over and a hint of fog completes the nightclub aesthetic. As the casual atmosphere evolves into the start of the play, (a pre-show announcement kills this energy) the nightclub grows alive with vocal performances and tango dancing. Just as our night out gets going, a television snaps on to lecture the history of Argentina's history while simultaneously transporting us back in time to 1976.
We meet Rodolfo (Julio Zurita), a new father and even newer widower who is compelled to march off to war and oppose General Videla. (His decision to leave behind his newborn daughter is objectionable.) Rodolfo only makes it as far as his friend El Puma's (Carlos Rivarola) tango club for a quick goodbye before the state army breaks in and carries Rodolfo away. The action jumps forward to reveal Arrabal (Micaela Spina) on her 18th birthday as she's being summoned by El Puma to learn the truth about her father's fate.
The simplicity of this point-A-to-point-B plot would have been far more enjoyable if the creators owned its plainness with greater confidence. Simplicity is not a bad trait, (Weidman makes excellent use of a short and sweet plot in his other dance play CONTACT) but in a futile attempt to fill the 90 minutes, the dramatic structure feels like a 5th grader struggling to hit a minimum word count on a book report. What remains is a series of drawn out scenes that linger rather than propel the action forward, and choreographers Zurita & Trujillo are unable to lift up the waning scenes in dance.
Even odder is the inclusion of a romantic figure for Arrabal. She is already struggling with the trauma of her missing father, but clearly not enough to shake off the urge for a romantic spin on the dance floor of El Puma's club. Unfortunately, the language of dance used in ARRABAL does not express Arrabal's inner struggles with enough urgency to present her as a multidimensional character. The remaining of the production feels tired and prematurely ready for the inevitable happy ending, but the audience at my performance seemed willing to forgive after being invited to dance on stage for the curtain call.
It's puzzling why a piece containing large political issues decided not to use any of them when hunting to give its central character greater obstacles to overcome. Why not pull from the source material for some needed depth? Instead, the country's conflict appears only as a frame. I've read other reviews arguing the core of ARRABAL is a love story, but I do not buy it. Perhaps the political anxiety currently residing front and center of our everyday lives automatically makes everything else on stage a secondary player. Even if the reason for Rodolfo's disappearance wasn't related to a country at war with itself, a love interest upstaging a child searching for a missing parent is still a hard sell.
Despite an underwritten through line, ARRABAL does offer a knockout score. Gustavo Santaolalla's tango-inspired music is an explosive composition pulling from multiple genres. The base of the music is, of course, tango and woven throughout are exciting riffs of rock, electronic and pop. The success of Santaolalla's score combined with Vincent Colbert's lighting and Peter Nigrini's projections serve as the only glimpse into the potential of what ARRABAL could have been.