ST. PETERSBURG — To anyone who has felt they don’t belong anywhere, this play is for you.
“La Gringa,” American Stage’s latest production, follows Maria Elena Garcia as she visits her family in Puerto Rico for the first time. Coming from New York City, she’s longing to discover her roots, but a family rift impacts the way she’s seen by her aunt, Norma, and cousin, Iris. Maria feels adrift. In the U.S., her ethnicity makes her feel like an outsider, but in Puerto Rico, she’s “la gringa.”
Written by Carmen Rivera, “La Gringa” is the longest-running off-Broadway production, having debuted in 1996. While there are Spanish and English versions of the script, there hasn’t been a bilingual one until this production. Associate director Alexa Perez combined the languages and then director Tatyana-Marie Carlo “amplified” what she wrote for the script.
Rivera was there at opening night, per Carlo’s request. Her presence added a special layer to the experience. Here’s what to know about the show.
Dialogue and themes
For those who aren’t fluent in Spanish, there will be dialogue that you won’t be able to understand. This is not a detriment to comprehending the tone of the emotions or overall plot (although it might inspire you to brush up on the language).
If you’re lucky, there will be a lot of people in the audience who do understand Spanish to help you pick up clues about the tone of the conversation. The audience on opening night did just that, and was so lively that the experience felt interactive, especially when they chimed in during a song — from the traditional Puerto Rican genre called bomba.
In either language, the play is hilarious and tender, and its themes of family, connection and passion are universally relatable.
The cast of characters
As Maria, Angela Reynoso nails her idealistic yet naive worldview. She doesn’t speak much Spanish, and the fact that she minored in Puerto Rican studies is a cringe factor.
Maria’s enthusiasm is most annoying to her aunt Norma (Alina Alcántara) and her cousin Iris (Jessy Julianna), especially when she arrives dressed in a jacket emblazoned with the Puerto Rican flag. Alcántara is successful at expressing Norma’s nuances — she comes off as uptight and a touch hostile, but there’s a tenderness beneath the surface. Often a comedic source, Iris is sarcastic, but also frustrated with the lack of job opportunities she encounters.
Victor, Norma’s husband, played by Victor Souffrant, is a kindly man, the type who sneaks beers to the ailing Manolo, Norma’s brother. Pedro Bayón’s performance as Manolo is captivating, especially as he grows stronger due to Maria’s visit.
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Maria has a potential love interest in Ramon Monchi (Germainne Lebrón), an engineer-turned-farmer whom she helps work the land. She learns more than just agriculture from Monchi.
A lush set
Scenic designer Rodrigo Escalante created a lush set filled with live tropical plants and mulch. It serves many purposes for different scenes, like residential landscaping, but easily becomes Monchi’s farm, where Maria tries her hand at farming (which is hilarious). It also becomes El Yunque, a tropical rainforest where Maria, Monchi and Manolo have a spiritual experience.
Lighting designer Christina Watanbe, with associate Ayla Taffel, made a lighting scheme that created ambience with a magical quality, particularly in the scenes in El Yunque. Patterns of lights and shadows were notably present throughout the production.
Sounds and music
The show is filled with music and other sound effects created by Germán Martinez. The sounds of tiny frogs called coquis pervade the theater, intertwined with more subtle outdoor noises that add to the atmosphere. Music is also a theme; Maria brings Manolo CDs to listen to, but Norma doesn’t allow music in the house. Manolo tries to teach Maria to play the guiro, a hollow gourd made into a percussion instrument. It’s music that ultimately brings the family together, and when Maria can finally hear a bird’s song, she knows she’s found home.
What to know if you go to “La Gringa”
“La Gringa” runs through Aug. 13. $48. American Stage Theater Company, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. 727-823-7529. americanstage.org.