Quantum's magical 'Maria de Buenos Aires' delights

Stage review

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What will they do next? More to the point, what won't they?

That's Quantum, the theater company that sets itself ever new challenges -- always of unconventional places, but often also of subject, text, collaboration and artistic mode.

This time it's tackled something I didn't even know existed, a tango opera. "Maria de Buenos Aires" (1968), was composed by Astor Piazzolla (1921-92), the Argentine master who re-imagined tango with fresh infusions of contemporary classical music and jazz.

'Maria de Buenos Aires'

Where: East Liberty YMCA, 120 S. Whitfield St.

When: Today through April 17. 8:30 p.m. Monday-Tuesday (no show April 11); 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 and 10 p.m. April 16. Check quantum.showclix.com for updates.

Tickets: $30-$35, quantum.showclix.com or 1-888-718-4253. To reschedule due to canceled shows, call 412-697-2929.

Piazzolla called it an "operita" (a word he may have invented), which is to say a little opera, less grand than grand opera but more serious than operetta. Small "Maria" may be, but it takes its mysterious, poetic, idiosyncratic tale quite seriously.

It all starts with Piazzolla's smoky, insinuating, through-composed score. But what most defines this experience at Quantum is the collaboration, bringing together, in an intimate cabaret setting, two singers, two actors, two dancers and a chamber orchestra of seven. Offstage, the team is led by director (and Quantum founder and artistic director) Karla Boos and musical director/conductor Andres Cladera, with choreography by Attack Theatre. And the designers are such sterling names as set designer Tony Ferrieri, costume designer Richard Parsakian (with Jen Sturm), video designer Joseph Seamans and videographer Mark Knobil.

I put the collaborating artists before the art because that's how this short, pungent evening (90 minutes plus intermission) makes its mark, astonishing you with the multiple arts it interweaves so tightly.

The material itself interweaves an achingly melancholy song cycle, deeply stirring music and surreal poetry with what I can only call ballet noir and operatic voices of flexibility and insistence. The poetic libretto by Horacio Ferrer is abstract, despairing, decadent and romantic. Erotic, too. Also mythic.

The story is quickly told in outline. Maria, a child of the streets, was born "one day when god was drunk" -- or maybe that's "pissed," with the double meaning. She suffers in the real world, her feelings bigger than any possible expression. Crushed (but not crushed) by the dark weight of life, she dies, leaving her the ghost of her own sad yearning. But she lives on in tangled myth, when, in Act 2, she is wed to a parallel version of herself and gives birth to what seems to be the future.

Maria is, in other words, the tango itself, with all its intimations of the forbidden, erotic and oppressed, its own decline (like Maria) into cliche and its eventual rebirth. But language and metaphor also associate Maria with the church as well as everyone watching her story: She is an Everyman, not suffering for us so much as us.

This being Quantum, the upstairs performing space heightens all the metaphors. The derelict East Liberty Y is a massive, echoing building. Its dusty gym (a literal netherworld) and winding stairways are a close match to the battered, European streets of turn-of-the-20th-century Buenos Aires.

This sense of both gritty and otherworldly place is recapitulated in video accompaniment on three large screens, mixing surreal movies with poignant stills and tactful silences. The audience is seated at small candlelit cabaret tables, packed in around a performing area of runways and platforms that snake through the middle of the room.

We are close to overwhelmed. At times you focus just on the dancers, the singers, the orchestra, the stunning narrator or those poetic visuals, but mainly your attention moves actively among them all.

And did I say this is rendered mainly in Spanish? There are sporadic subtitles projected on the screens, and Ms. Boos herself plays an intense, English-speaking gypsy narrator, but you will find the printed synopsis helpful.

Or not. Mainly, as with some kinds of music or poetry, you just give yourself to the flow of these interwoven elements, guided by the beguiling performers. I am in love with El Duende, the eloquent Spanish-speaking master-of-ritual, written to be male but played with crisp, stiletto-clicking authority by the compelling Carolina Loyola-Garcia. The two dancers, mixing many genres including a clean, expansive tango, are Michele de la Reza and Dane Toney.

Raquel Winnica Young and Carlos Feliciano are the beautifully voiced singer-actors. Her Maria is shockingly young, innocent and idealistic, but also veiled and defeated. His Fayador is a storyteller with compelling presence.

And then there's the bandoneon, the accordion-like (but also unlike) instrument that is the heart of Argentine tango, played with soulful insistence, sometimes at the center of the action, by Benjamin Bogart.

Where does Quantum find such artists, and how does it bring them together in such interesting places with fascinating material? That's the art beyond their art.

Of course there are hurdles. You may have heard that last weekend's performances were cancelled when an occupancy permit was delayed. I reviewed a dress rehearsal, and the remaining schedule has been rearranged, with more performances packed into fewer days. It won't be long before "Maria" is a memory and myth once again.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: crawson@post-gaztte.com .


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