Israel Ruiz in La Strada
(© Martin Fernandez Lombana/interactiveMartin.com)
Israel Ruiz in La Strada
(© Martin Fernandez Lombana/interactiveMartin.com)
Comedy and tragedy mix unconvincingly in Gerard Vazquez's stage adaptation of Federico Fellini's Academy Award-winning 1954 film La Strada, at TBG Theater. Co-directed by Jorge Merced and Rene Buch, the production certainly inspires a few laughs -- thanks to the work of performer Israel Ruiz -- but it ultimately fails to reach the tragic heights of its source material.

The work centers on a love triangle between three circus performers: strongman Zampanó (Luis Carlos de La Lombana), Gelsomina (Nanda Abella), the naïve young woman whom he's trying to integrate into his act, and The Fool (Ruiz), the clown who cannot abide the ways in which Zampanó brutalizes her.

Vazquez frames this main story with a sequence in which a trio of clowns (Ruiz, along with Winston Estevez and Maria Peyramaure), attempt to create a new act of their own for their demanding (and unseen) boss. From their improvisations, they eventually develop the scenario that turns into the primary narrative of the piece.

There's a kind of Beckettian existentialism to the sequence, which also explores the nature in which objects -- like the small trumpet one clown produces -- can be transformed by the imagination. It's cute and given Ruiz's deftly precise miming skills, and the fine supporting work of Estevez and Peyramaure, inspires a few laughs.

Unfortunately, this light-hearted prologue sets a misleading tone for the main section of the show. Indeed, there's a sense of whiplash as the play transitions into the first scene between Zampanó and Gelsomina, whom he has bought as an indentured partner, in which he beats her for not learning her part of the act quickly enough.

Reeling from the stark transition to Zampanó's brutality, audiences never really come to accept him as anything less than an egotistical monster (a sense that's enhanced by de La Lombana's often wooden performance). Similarly, while Peyramaure can charm, she never shares a chemistry with de La Lombana that sparks with the sort of codependent ardor that's necessary to make the final moments of the play painfully pungent.

The show does come vividly to life, however, whenever Ruiz comes to the fore. Not only is he a gifted mime, he deftly blends gentleness, wit and subtle sensuality in his turn as The Fool. Whether he's comforting Gelsomina or confronting Zampanó, Ruiz simply commands the stage.