The-Girl-Who-Can't-Really-Sing (the movie) May 13, 2011
by John Osebold
Thanks for bringing El Gallo to OtB. Another unique puzzle piece in the 10-11 season that makes for a grand whole.
The ideas presented by Claudio Valdés Kuri and Paul Barker were the artistic ambitions I love OtB for: Kuri's notion of making an opera out of the process of putting together a performance; Barker's two string-quartets scoring the 6 vocalists' actions and verbalizations like clockwork. And the 6 primary performers worked their asses off, combining demanding vocal feats with intense physical feats (Irene Akiko Iida's solo while climbing a mop was remarkable), not to mention creating characters that we clearly identify and want to care about. The moment that took me a level up was the sudden blue wash of the stage lights in which the performers assumed 3-4 "dead body" tableaus. This broken expectation after the lengthy and entertaining audition sequence was a welcome surprise. It was marvelous pacing, and my anticipation for the trajectory of El Gallo was up in the stars.
But from there, the show began to lose focus for me. Kuri and Barker's concepts were still intact, but the relationships of the 6 primaries became vague. It wasn't because of the language or the music. The made-up language was never a barrier - in fact, it might have taken the piece down a notch if we could've comprehended their words - and the music was still spot on it terms of synchronizing action and vocalizations with the quartets' score. But in a piece with an unmistakable narrative, music appreciation and technical feats are not enough. I wanted to follow the arcs of the individual personalities that had been established in the beginning. The role of the choir director disappeared into the soup, and what I may have mistaken for one or two burgeoning relationships were either dropped or left undeveloped. Most of all, the character who had, perhaps unwittingly, become the focal point for me was the-girl-who-can't-really-sing (forgive me, I don't know what her character name was). Even in a cast of colorful personalities and abilities, it was she who had begun to have the most interesting storyline, who had the most potential to change for better or worse. I could've sworn she was going to become the masthead of the story, but she too became lost in the fog. It was frustrating because I would still feel tinges of these arcs during several moments of interesting staging, choreography, or vocal solos, but there was not enough for me to put together the clues. And perhaps this was my own fault for not seeing the clues.
When the final act commenced, I wasn't sure if we were watching a new show entirely until the-girl-who-can't-really-sing cracked and halted the performance. Then there was an instigated clapping sequence and a final musical resolve concluded the experience. But I didn't feel this final sequence was the climax that Kuri and Barker had intended. And if a climax wasn't intended, why spend the time creating a new setting where the audience would inevitably anticipate a resolution?
The American movie version would have made the-girl-who-can't-really-sing the main character, and perhaps she would have belted out a miracle voice by the show's end. Or perhaps the final bit of music would have been a stunner. I say this to come to El Gallo's aid because no one wanted to see them succumb to the cliches of the American movie. But at the same time, these same cliches are based on tried-and-true principles of storytelling, and without clear character arcs, relationships, or a cathartic conclusion, the end result of a story about a struggling performance is vague. El Gallo didn't need to spell things out for us (after all, even the most abstract performances can make you feel the arcs), but it was difficult to watch it brush so close to greatness and not grasp onto it.
I cannot stress enough how much work and moments of brilliance were packed into El Gallo. I would gladly experience another show by Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes.