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Exquisita Agonía and the Alluring Pain of the Unknown

Nilo Cruz's latest play probes the mystery surrounding a heart transplant.

Gonzalo Gabriel Díaz Flores and Germán Jaramillo star in Nilo Cruz's Exquisita Agonía, directed by José Zayas, at Repertorio Español.
(© Emmanuel Abreu)

What does one use to fill gaps in human knowledge: Theory? Hope? Resentment? The characters of Nilo Cruz's Exquisita Agonía employ a volatile mixture of all three. Performed in Spanish (with English titles) at Repertorio Español, the play is receiving an explosive first production by director José Zayas. It tells the story of the relationship between the recipient of a heart transplant and the donor's widow. As in several of Cruz's previous works (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics), drama ignites from the friction between the banal and the magical.

Millie Marcel (Luz Nicolás) is predisposed to the latter. She's an opera singer whose composer husband, Lorzenzo, died from injuries sustained in a car accident. Shortly after, his heart was transplanted into the chest of Amér (Gilberto Gabriel Díaz Flores), a young man from Latin America who has traveled to Miami for the procedure. Millie tracks down the surgeon who performed the transplant, Doctor Castillo (Germán Jaramillo), to try to arrange a meeting with Amér, hoping to discover some remnant of her deceased husband.

Luz Nicolás, Pedro De León, Germán Jaramillo, and Gilberto Gabriel Díaz Flores appear in Exquisita Agonía.
(© Emmanuel Abreu)

Meanwhile, Amér feels a foreign presence in his body and has developed the strangest desire to listen to Mahler. Doctor Castillo dismisses this as the lingering trauma of a difficult operation, but after discussing the matter with his older brother, Imanol (a lusty Pedro De León), Amér decides to accept the meeting with Millie and her two adult children, Romy (Soraya Padrao) and Tommy (Gonzalo Trigueros). We wonder if the family will want to know Amér as he is, or if they will treat him as merely a reliquary for the sacred heart of Lorenzo, a husband and father who was less than saintly.

Pulses are sure to quicken over the course of two hours thanks to Zayas's taut staging, which takes a delicate situation and refuses to treat it delicately. These complete strangers thirst for something extraordinary, so much so that they barely wait to drink. That is certainly true of Nicolás's portrayal of Millie: Speaking with a dainty Castilian lisp, her hand and facial expressions are as grand as someone accustomed to performing a tale of doomed love to the back row of Teatro Real. Díaz Flores is far more reserved as the enigmatic Amér, yet his poker face fails to conceal his deep longing for a profound explanation of his erratic emotions. Even the science-minded Doctor Castillo cannot help but indulge in this romance, as Jaramillo subtly conveys his struggle to be guided by his brain, rather than his heart.

Luz Nicolás plays Millie, and Gilberto Gabriel Díaz Flores plays Amér in Exquisita Agonía.
(© Emmanuel Abreu)

Using a simple arrangement of benches to create several locations, set designer Raúl Abrego ties the stage picture together with a heartlike central sculpture, with arteries branching out in all directions. Manuel Da Silva lights it in blood red, making it look like a relic encased behind the clinical boxes of light that flank it. Sound designer Rafael López underscores the transitions with romantic selections from Mahler and Schubert, bringing the elusive spirit of Lorenzo into the room. Fernando Then's costumes smartly suggest the class differences between the Marcels (Tommy wears a preppy coral blazer and Millie looks ever-ready for a gala) and the two foreign brothers in their casual duds. It forces us to wonder if Millie's selfish treatment of Amér is more than just emotionally exploitative.

Cruz has a talent for sustaining such doubt, the exquisite agony of which will linger in your mind long after you leave the theater. We tell ourselves that there is a rational explanation for everything, yet deep in the back of our brains (or perhaps, our hearts) a little voice whispers, What if?