Theater review: “Puerto Rican Nocturne” at Bug Theatre features rich performances in a tragic tale
In an intimate indie theater on Denver’s Northside, a stalled revolution for independence is getting its moment to strut and fret upon the stage. With an eye to contemporary conflicts, “Puerto Rican Nocturne” — at the Bug Theatre through Aug. 21 — recounts the ambush and murders of two unarmed, pro-independence activists in Puerto Rico in 1978. Arnaldo Darío Rosado-Torres was 25 and Carlos Enrique Soto-Arriví was 19 at the time of their deaths.
Colorado Springs-based playwright Jon Marcantoni Rosa based his drama in part on writer Manuel Suarez’s book “Two Lynchings on Cerro Maravilla.” The playwright also found a painful echo in the more current stories of mothers grieving the death of sons gone too soon.
The book’s subtitle doesn’t mince words: “The Police Murders in Puerto Rico and the Federal Government Cover Up.” And so, “Puerto Rican Nocturne” opens as a police officer named Gonzo is being called on the carpet by Detective Olivera (Tanis Joaquin Gonzales) for his presumed role in the death of the young men. The police department is trying to distance itself from the murders, to insulate itself from Gonzo and his underlings’ actions.
Gonzo is an apt nickname for Alejandro González Malavé, the gung-ho police officer who sees himself as a hero of the Penepes/Estaditas, a political party advocating for Puerto Rico becoming America’s 51st state. The action unfolds amid the U.S.-Soviet Union’s Cold War contretemps — with the Estaditas aligned with America’s interests and the Independistas, allegedly the puppets of Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union.
Diego Estrada Bernuy shines as Gonzo, the central — if expendable — player in this particularly dark moment. The lanky actor brings an impressive weight to his performance. He pours a heady mixture of cockiness and neediness into Gonzo. The police officer, nursing a wounded pinky, kicks his feet up on Olivera’s desk when clearly his boss doesn’t respect him. Meanwhile, he craves approval and seeks a meeting with Capt. Morales. Angelo Mendez-Soto breathes paternalist charisma into the police chief who recruited Gonzo as an undercover operative and inspired his fervor.
Paola Miranda portrays Adria, the mother of the younger victim and the play’s counterpoint to Gonzo. Yet much like Gonzo, Adria, too, is slowly poisoned emotionally in the aftermath of the deaths. Her grief becomes toxic. She punishes her husband and her son’s stepfather, Eusebio (Brandon Nieves), for introducing their son to activist politics, even though she also took “Quique” to marches and protests for Puerto Rico’s nationhood. She turns increasingly snappish toward her closest friend and fellow activist, Teresa (Rav’n Moon).
Noemi Negron directs this cast with a rich sense of the script’s personal-political conjunctions. In a bravura scene in the second act, she stages the torments of Gonzo and Adria — one guilty, one guilt-ridden. The two sit back-to-back, switching places again and again while delivering raging monologues. It’s a Janus-faced bit of business, except each face represents tragedy.
The set design’s assemblage is a bit cluttered; the furniture meant to depict different locales isn’t moved between scenes. A sparer stage and modulated lighting would have signaled the various scenes with more force. But these are quibbles.
The script is compelling, even when a couple of the play’s ideological exchanges get leaden. The performances in “Puerto Rican Nocturne” are often dynamic. Eunice Callejas Solano as Gonzo’s young activist wife, Maricarmen, and Anthony Rivera as Adria’s late love and rescuer, Pedro, suggest how easily romance is thwarted. In this politically riven world, “Nocturne” doesn’t refer to dreamy interludes so much as nightmarish realities.
IF YOU GO
“Puerto Rican Nocturne.” Written by Jon Marcantoni Rosa. Directed by Noemi Negron. Featuring Paola Miranda, Diego Estrada Bernuy, Tanis Joaquin Gonzales, Eunice Callejas Solano, Anthony Rivera, Angelo Mendez-Soto, Rav’n Moon and Brandon Nieves. At Bug Theater, 3654 Navajo St., through Aug. 21. For tickets and info: bugtheater.org or 303-477-5977.
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