A Dark and Twisted Tango

The name of playwright Maria Irene Fornes may not immediately resonate with South Florida’s theater-going public. But like many overlooked female geniuses throughout history, this is an oversight that needs to be rectified at once. And I’m confident it will be. Because Fornes – an early pioneer of the 1960’s Off-Off Broadway movement and originator of site-specific immersive theater – has been embraced by none other than our own creatively out-of-the-box superstar, Nicole Stodard, founder and artistic director of Thinking Cap Theatre (TCT).

When Stodard introduced Fornes’s TANGO PALACE as their 2023/24 season opener, she “warned” us that this play ranks among the top three most avant-garde works they’ve ever produced. Which is saying plenty. Because Thinking Cap, as its name implies, has been challenging our minds and preconceptions with thought-provoking fare since 2010, in some 50 productions. Two of which were absolutely, delightfully different, and rather challenging Fornes plays … hmm.

But Tango Palace, written in 1962 and first staged in San Francisco in 1963, is only the second play she’d ever written and the first to be produced. Yet it was highly successful (in Off-Off Broadway numbers), instantly anthologized in “Playwrights of Tomorrow,” and appears to have set this contemporary Cuban-American playwright (1930-2018) on a prolific path to writing 40 plays, earn a Pulitzer nomination, and win nine Obie Awards.

So now you know why you should know her. And you can get a true sense of her colorful vision and style – even her unique use of language and pacing (reflective of her Hispanic heritage) – in this early, but fully realized work. Unlike Fornes’s typically more grueling labors, Tango Palace was written in a 19-day rush of emotion at a crisis point in her tumultuous love affair with writer Susan Sontag and features a camp style influenced by Sontag’s landmark essay, “Notes on Camp.” Fornes also appears to be a fan of Samuel Beckett’s sense of the absurd and Oscar Wilde’s wit. Still her voice remains uniquely her own.

Here’s how to approach a Fornes play, in her own words. “What’s important is the spirit of the thing, not the interpretation. The spirit of the thing is where something hits you and you don’t know what it is. This is much more powerful than when it speaks to your rational mind and something that you agree with, so you like and you praise it. To me that’s not as profound as when what you have experienced is something that you don’t even understand.”

Autumn Kioti Horne, as Isidore, makes a radical observation to her frightened lover and
protege Leah Sessa, as Leopold, in Thinking Cap Theatre’s colorful, quirky, and searing
production of TANGO PALACE by Maria Irene Fornes.

I can’t follow this with my own rational views on her work, though I can say the acting, staging, and production quality are as excellent as any we’ve come to expect from TCT’s award-winning team. Because they are the professionals, I guess I’m safe in sharing their website’s brief description of what Tango Palace is about, and because you’ll likely read it anyway when you purchase your seats. TCT describes the play as “a dark, funny and whimsical examination of perilous passion that tests the limits of the age-old saying that ‘all is fair in love and war’ … and “will resonate with anyone who’s ever tangled with a tumultuous lover and lived to tell.” Alright, I’ll add my two cents, I found it definitely had a sadomasochistic vibe. Though definitions, as the playing cards that are so belligerently thrown about as “lessons,” (including the “all is fair in love and war” maxim early on), are very much left up to viewer interpretation. Or, as Fornes would prefer, to your emotional response.

What is extremely well-thought-out and uniquely presented by the play’s director Nicole Stodard and her production team, is stage design, casting, costuming, music and video projection. They are ALL excellent choices that I can feel comfortable commenting upon.

First off, as you enter the Abdo New River Room at Broward Center (Thinking Cap’s latest, and perhaps greatest, theater venue), you’re met by a stark, multi-story stage comprised of high-contrast blocks of black-and-white, a line of old-fashioned tea kettles on a shelf in back, a stuffed perched parrot at the left and a couple of stuffed perches for humans to sit on at the right. Just one more striking and strikingly unique set design by Thinking Cap’s resident scenic designer Alyiece Moretto-Watkins. The stage is rather wide and fronted by two wide, semicircular rows of seats, with additional higher bar-stool seating around tables in back. In other words, great sight lines for all attendees.

A rare tender moment between two clowns. Autumn Kioti Horne and Leah Sessa star in
Maria Irene Fornes’s rarely seen, iconic first production. Thinking Cap Theatre presents
TANGO PALACE, playing now through November 3 at Broward Center for the
Performing Arts.

“Tango” is in the play’s first name (“Palace” may be more of an inside joke). The heated interactions of its two leading (and sole) characters can be seen as a sort of tango dance. This theme is reinforced early on by clips of historic tangos sung in German, French, and from sites around the world projected on an overhead screen. For this vintage musical and visual feast, we can credit Thinking Cap’s managing director Bree-Anna Obst who served as lighting, sound (with Stodard) and projection designer. The tango dancers were followed by early 1960’s scopitones (short films played on jukeboxes) of pop singers and dances of the play’s decade – featuring the Watusi, the Twist, the Swim, and more. Depending on when you were born, you’ll either smile nostalgically – and maybe even shake and sing along – or roll your eyes at the silliness of it all. 

Then suddenly the projected background changes to pop-art style heart designs that also echo the playing cards tossed every which way by Isidore, an androgynous clown-dressed character in stark white makeup with a thin, painted-on mustache. From the moment Isidore enters the scene, she exhorts her personal opinions on everything and anything, but especially about relationships, for the entire hour. But first she sings, or rather lip-syncs perfectly to 1930’s ballads while strumming a toy ukulele. Autumn Kioti Horne, who plays Isidore, has a lovely voice and we do get to enjoy some of her vocals later on. Here might be a good time to also credit choreographer CJ Torres for his ongoing contribution.

The extremely talented and versatile Horne – whose voice and lithe body get quite the workout – also plays wizard when, with a flick of her wrist and announcing “Argentine Tango,” the music suddenly begins. (Maybe not so magical nowadays, but remember this play came decades before Siri and Alexa.)

TANGO PALACE choreographer CJ Torres provided free tango lessons in a Post-Show
event for the play’s audience and public attendees, including Thinking Cap’s beaming
artistic director Nicole Stodard.

Isidore acts all surprised at the discovery of a dark, fully wrapped bundle in the room, which she carefully unravels to reveal a rather cowed Leopold. The young man is played by a female (first time use of two women in this two-hander that had only been acted by a woman and a man, or two men, before). Active local star Leah Sessa, as Leopold, also appears in full-white clown makeup with exaggerated black eye-liner, making her normally large eyes appear truly huge when emoting pleas, pain or incredulity. Perhaps the clown getup and frequent physical leaps and tumbles (Horne once worked as a circus aerialist) makes the cruelty of some scenes appear less real, and so more palatable. Or it could be a statement about couples not willing to give up their masks for anything or anyone.  

Real masks are actually worn in the latter half of the show. The masks symbolize beetles (the bugs) – large and grotesque but also gracefully beautiful. They were designed by Stodard (who also served as costume designer) along with very talented intern, Jared Rezeppa. The recent Fashion Design and Product Development graduate was responsible for crafting the black beetle masks and zany hats worn by the two leads. 

In addition to the ongoing theme of each partner hopelessly wishing to make over the other in her/his image, is the sense of these two being trapped together – if anything to avoid the loneliness of a solitary life. A large padlock is intermittently projected onto the screen; we are led to believe there’s a key which only Isidore can access. Leopold incessantly pleads, “I want to get out. I want the key.” Isidore plays with his emotions, alternately denying the key’s existence or making bargains for its acquisition which she doesn’t keep. It’s obvious she considers herself the superior half of their relationship;  acting as master of a recalcitrant pupil who must be whipped for his errors. Leopold’s unrequited love journey features recurring, desperate and futile attempts to spark a hint of loving tenderness in his partner’s cold soul. 

Among numerous snide, and often obscure, observations regarding the inanity of the human race, we do get a crystal clear picture of what Fornes thinks about the education system of her day. Isidore’s pet parrot is addressed both literally and figuratively when she proclaims: “Study hard, learn your cards, and one day you too will be able to talk like a parrot.” And religious faith is mocked with: “Faith is a disgusting thing. It’s treacherous and destructive. Mountains are moved from place to place. You can’t find them. I won’t have any of that.”

But I’ve been talking too much already, though I’d promised to refrain from commentary. It’s really hard because Thinking Cap productions always manage to actively engage my thinking cap for days, if not weeks, after each show, gleaning new insights into the human condition. My advice for viewing this Fornes masterpiece is to let down your guard and allow Tango Palace to move you in whatever way comes naturally, the way its author intended. There will be plenty of time after to consider and discuss. Especially if you stay for your show’s free talkback or attend any of the others by simply registering at the TCT website.

But do it fast because Isidore and Leopold are only in town through Friday, November 3rd. I attended the Oct 28 post-show talkback with Lillian Manzor, PhD, who illuminated the biculturalism in Fornes’s use of language and told me more about how friends,  family, and the public chose to address Maria Irene than one would ever think possible.

You can still catch the Oct 31, 7:30 pm performance and special Halloween Dress Up followed by a Post-Show Backstage Tour featuring the cast and creative team. See the show only on Nov 1 at 7:30 or get the show and talkback on Nov 2 at 7:30, hosted by its director Nicole Stodard, PhD, on the topic of Fornes’s Living Legacy: TCT’s Embodied Research and Rehearsal Practices. 

Closing Night is Nov 3, 7:30 pm. But whichever show you attend – or even if you don’t attend any – you are welcome to the talkbacks, just register at the same site you’d use to get your tickets: https://thinkingcaptheatre.org. Or call 954-610-7263. The site’s main page also has info on all of their Free Public Programming. Thinking Cap’s TANGO PALACE by Maria Irene Fornes is playing through Nov 3 at The Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Abdo New River Room, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale 33312. 

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