185: Boleros for the Disenchanted

21 Nov

Jose Rivera is an Obie award winning playwright with many successful plays and screenplays under his belt. Boleros for the Disenchanted is the play he wrote for, and about, his parents, in particular his mother.

couple dancing

It’s a full-blown, romantic play, a comedy at times and also the sort of drama that requires violins and symphony orchestras to properly tug your heart strings. While sentimental in places, it is also funny and touching.

I think what makes Boleros for the Disenchanted a difficult play is the playwright’s conflicted space for writing it. By making his mother something close to a saint (certainly religious enough for a sainthood), and making his father a loveable larrikin with a tendency for cheating, Rivera seems to be saying that women should forgive and stay, no matter what their men do.

The play begins in Miraflores, Puerto Rico, in 1953 with Flora (Rivera’s mother) discovering that her fiancé has been cheating on her. She’s furious, even when Maneulo tries to justify his urges.

MANUELO: Do you ask a tiger not to stalk the antelope? Do you ask the fish not to, to, to do what fish do all day? No. You let nature be. You let the flower blossom. And you must let a man be a man, Flora. I have waited a year for you. A man cannot stop being a man for a year. That’s sin. And our engagement is for yet another year. Two years in which my flower will not blossom! Is that fair?

When Manuelo refuses to remain celibate for the rest of their engagement, Flora breaks it off with him and goes to visit a cousin in the city to get over her heartbreak. That’s where she meets Eusebio (Rivera’s father) and although she’s prickly and cold, he makes her smile and soon they’re in love.

There are lots of great lines, especially from Flora’s parents, and the first half is classic romantic comedy material. But the play changes radically in the second half, which is set forty years later inAmerica.

Forced to leave Puerto Rico because there was no work, Flora and Eusebio tried to make a new start inAmerica, but they faced the migrants’ lot: discrimination, poor wages, menial labour and all the rest. When the second act opens, Eusebio has lost his legs and is confined to a hospital bed in their small home.

Flora becomes a marriage counsellor in the church, advising young couples on the realities of marriage, while dealing with the news of her own husband’s infidelities. As her mother told her at the start of the play, “marriage isn’t all laughter, parties, and making babies. Marriage is hell on earth if you’re not happy.” But the Flora who demanded fidelity in the first half of the play has learnt a bitter lesson in the second half. Her heart is broken but she sticks with her husband no matter what. And his philandering days are over as he is stuck in bed, being tended to and cleaned by his wife.

EUSEBIO: All my life, before I became a stump, I struggled against God’s fate and thought fatalism was the Puerto Rican’s poor excuse for never taking action, or rising up in anger to demand independence or justice or power. But the joke was on me. God’s fate was a lot stronger than I ever knew. He planted me in this bed like a flower in dirt and now I can’t get out, no matter how much I dream of running, running, running.

Read an interview with Jose Rivera where he discusses Boleros for the Disenchanted.

Publisher: American Conservatory Theater, 2009

Cast: 3M, 3F

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