Making goofy faces, larking about with props and frequently shattering the fourth wall — while remaining relatively faithful to the play’s contours and rhetorical highlights — Rivera seems to point out the absurdity inherent in possessive, vengeful, self-destructive and racially prejudiced behavior. He also spends a lot of time sticking his tongue out at the audience, eyes impishly alight, daring anyone to resist his irreverence.
Co-directed by Rivera and Viena Gonzalez, “Otelo . . . Sniff” kicked off the 15th International Festival of Hispanic Theater at Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center last weekend. The festival, mounted by the local company Teatro de la Luna, runs through Nov. 17 and includes offerings from Latin America and Spain. (With the exception of one children’s show, performances are in Spanish, with simultaneous English translation provided via headset.)
The proceedings got off to a propitious start with four performances of Rivera’s spoof, which he wrote and began performing 11 years ago. Produced by the Dominican company Teatro Guloya, the show unfolded in front of two tables draped with colorful scarves. After peeking slyly around the edge of a backdrop, Rivera sauntered onstage, dressed in a purple satin toga and sporting the aforementioned clown nose. Explaining that he was Iago, speaking from beyond the grave, he proceeded to reenact the excitement, subterfuge and violence surrounding Othello and Desdemona’s romance.
As the actor channeled the voices of the ill-fated spouses and sundry other characters, he snatched up illustrative props from the tables. A pink cup represented ships sailing around Cyprus. A purple hat signaled the presence of Cassio. Two tiny dolls often stood in for Othello and Desdemona: Rivera wielded them like finger puppets, making light of the spouses’ billing and cooing. (Monica Ferreras designed the show’s set, Ernesto Lopez was mask designer and Josue Santana devised the sound.)
But the performer exploited his own physicality, too, executing the odd Afro-Caribbean-style dance move or striking exaggerated poses, like a one-legged balancing stance. He also interacted with audience members: On Saturday night, he ad-libbed banter with one person and polished another’s shoes.
Then, about three-quarters of the way through the performance, Rivera purported to collapse from exhaustion. Only after he had coaxed a theatergoer to supply him with an energy-boosting candy from her purse did he continue his act. Such whimsical moments added to the production’s humor without detracting from Shakespeare’s themes. Rather, by mocking both the Bard’s characters and human conduct in general, Rivera seemed to emphasize the cautionary tale at the heart of “Othello.”
In the coming weeks, the festival will present five more U.S. premieres, including Mariano Moro’s play “Jesucristo” (“Jesus Christ”), mounted by Argentina’s Compañia Los del Verso; Blanca del Barrio’s play “Cartas de las Golondrinas” (“Letters From the Swallows”), about emigration and immigration, staged by Spain’s Escena Miriñaque; and Maria Beatriz Vergara’s comedy “Aguita de Viejas” (“Fragrances From the Past”), produced by Ecuador’s Zero No Zero Teatro.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Teatro de la Luna’s 15th International Festival of Hispanic Theater
Through Nov. 17 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Visit www.teatrodelaluna.org or call 703-548-3092 or 202-882-6227.