Thalia Spanish Theater has been an institution in Sunnyside, Queens for the past 23 years. Over that time their raison d'être has been Zarzuelas, which are turn-of-the-century Spanish operettas. They also specialize in dance concerts of Tango, Flamenco and other Spanish-influenced genres. All of their plays to date have been from Spain because the artistic staff felt that it best accommodated the diversity of the community--everyone shares that ancestry and language. So although they say they have plans to change that in the near future, their present production, Picasso's Guernica is no exception. Yet whereas all of Thalia's productions up until now have been solely in Spanish, this production is an exception: For the first time in the history of the company, Thalia is presenting a bilingual production, with Spanish on Fridays and Saturdays and English on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Regrettably, I do not speak Spanish, so I saw the English version.
For those unfamiliar with Picasso's Guernica, the painting recalls the bombing of Guernica, a small town in Spain which Adolf Hitler used for aircraft target practice in 1937, marking the first such massive attack against a civilian population. In the painting, Picasso tries to capture the vitality of the small town and the horror it experienced. So does playwright Jerónimo López Mozo, who animates the painting so we can experience the same pain that Picasso felt when he decided to work on the piece.
The play opens with a quick overview of what happened--that 1,754 people died and 889 people were wounded in Guernica--and soon we go to Picasso, armed with a newspaper and a giant paintbrush. As he reads the accounts of the attack on Guernica he is viscerally and visibly affected, and is quickly drawn to begin scribbling what he sees in his mind's eye. As he is drawing, pre-bombing Guernica comes to life behind a scrim. This is a fully realized world, alive with all of the characters from the painting living in a colorful village. In the play, Picasso becomes part of this world, and the design of the whole production is its strongest element.
But the original score, contributed as a way for the villagers to celebrate their way of life in dance by Pablo Sorozábal and Teddy Bautista, is the weakest aspect of the production. To phrase it kindly, the music was, if nothing else, anachronistic; a highly digitalized, eerie, Casio-induced score that sounded more like the soundtrack to a B-movie than anything else.
It's especially sad because music is so much an integral part of the production. For example, after the "village life" scene, there's a dance for the bombing. After that scene, each individual character from the painting is isolated and each one dances as well. Finally, these isolated characters deliver monologues to let us know exactly how they feel. By the time the play is over, the painting and its players have been realized so many times that it all becomes a bit tedious.
This is not to say that Picasso's Guernica doesn't have a lot of things going for it. The story is an important one and the show is uniquely able to transmit the pain the characters feel while remembering an important international incident that most people have never heard about or have forgotten. And again, the sense of design is beautiful--especially toward the end, when the characters deconstruct the painting while wearing Picasso-style masks, all culminating in a final scene that reconstructs the painting as cast members bring out life-sized sculptures that, when put together, completes the painting in three dimensions. In fact, when a projection of the actual painting is shown in front of the scrim (with the sculptured version behind the scrim), the precision is breathtaking.