The island of Puerto Rico. The island of enchantment. The Commonwealth of the United States of America that is a jump away from Florida. An island stuck in many ways between old traditions and necessary progress. An island fighting hard to keep an identity while the “benefactors” try to give it another. The island I come from and have seen misinterpreted for years in the media and arts. I mention this because of the mere fact that as we all sat down in the Atlantic Theater Company‘s theater to watch Paola Lazaró’s “Tell Hector I Miss Him,” I was terrified of another production skimming our nature, and giving a romantic version of who the people are. To my delight, that’s not what happened. I was transported back to the island of my formative years, and not only did Lazaró capture real personalities, she also put on display our common tragedies.
The play follows a group of characters as they live their day to day in Old San Juan. A better setting couldn’t have been chosen as this place holds the magic of yesteryears, but it’s a tourist spot that is shared with the people that call it home. It starts with an old school gentleman that owns the small corner store named El Mostro (Juan Carlos Hernandez), a man of principles and a father figure to the community he serves. His wife Samira (played by Orange is The New Black‘s, Selenis Leyva) seems to be drowning because of his conservative mentality and ultimately finds solace from another man. The hard, yet broken Jeison’s facade (Victor Almanzar) is the result of a system that does not allow emotions to be felt. Yet, he can’t help it. His brother Palito (Sean Carvajal) is his cross, a man nobody really likes, but pities. A man that outside of this community, is a target to bullies who attack mentally disabled people. Palito is in love with Tati (Analisa Velez) who uses him for money and to feel loved, even if she doesn’t love back. Her best friend Malena (played by another Orange is the New Black standout Dascha Polanco) is the object of everyone’s desires, but to her surprise is Isis (Yadira Guevara-Prip), a teenage girl battling her sexuality who peaks her interest. To round up this ensemble we have the tragic story of Toño (Alexander Flores) and La Gata (Talene Monahon), two young kids enslaved by their parents’ vices. And then there is El Mago (Luis Vega) and Hugo (Flaco Navaja), who represent those that kept on living even when life ceased to give them anything to live for.
The strength of Lazaró’s script is not just within the exquisite dialogue and the realistic atmosphere, but in the way she weaves all these stories together with such ease; we are instantly connected to each character. The ensemble itself is brilliant: as their stories unfold, we see the true nature of their actions, and we are forced to decide how we will judge them. But Lazaró doesn’t make that easy, and the questions asked forces the audience to have different perspectives. Bold in her approach, she doesn’t miss an opportunity to give this slice of the island the flavor it actually has, and display the strength of her people. The smile on their faces as everything sinks.
Director David Mendizábal effortlessly moves the pieces on the chessboard, creates an authentic experience, while giving us hints for us to investigate the characters’ motivations. The music builds the moments without us noticing, and people’s movements are as reckless as they are honest. To see this play is to take a piece of Puerto Rico away with you. To dig into these characters is to understand the little island many of us come from and cherish. And the best part? You don’t have to be from the island to feel this way. Mendizábal and Lazaró have bestowed upon us a thought-provoking piece that shows its teeth between the laughters and tears. Lazaró is the real deal.
“Tell Hector I Miss Him” will be at the Atlantic Theater Company through February 19. This month has shown to theatergoers that there are great theater productions happening out there. “Tell Hector I Miss Him” might be the best example.
Out of 4 stars:
Twisted Talk: Are you familiar with the culture of Puerto Rico? Have you seen “Tell Hector I Miss Him”? Discuss below!