Theater Review: “Arrabal” — The Triumph of the Tango

In essence, Arrabal is a celebration of Argentina’s wonderful dance tradition, the Tango.

Arrabal, directed and co-choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Music composed by Gustavo Santaolalla. Music by Bajofondo. Book by John Weidman. Choreography by Julio Zurita. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Lighting design by Vincent Colbert. Sound design by Peter McBoyle. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Wig and a make-up design by Rachel Padula. Music direction by Alejandro Kauderer. Production design by Peter Nigrini. Staged at the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA, through June 18.

A scene from "Arrabal" Photo: courtesy of the American Repertory Theater.

A scene from “Arrabal” Photo: courtesy of the American Repertory Theater.

By David Greenham

Making its American premiere via the American Repertory Theater, Arrabal, a flashy buzzsaw of a tango dance narrative from Buenos Aires, promises to be as timely as it is energetic. It begins in 1976, when a military junta led by General Jorge Rafael Videla seized power and began a campaign of corruption and murder in an official effort to reinvigorate the soul of the nation — in other words, he wanted to “make Argentina great again.” During that frightening period, between 1976 and 1983, as many as 30,000 people opposed to Videla were arrested, tortured, and murdered. They became known as the “Desaparecidos,” the disappeared.

We didn’t hear all that much about these atrocities at the time because it turns out that the US was among those who provided money and military assistance to Videla’s “Dirty War.” Many Americans first learned of the Argentinian horrors in 1982, when Videla overstepped and invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory. He was quickly squashed and his regime crumbled.

As early as 1977, mothers of the Desaparecidos began marching each Thursday afternoon in the Plaza de Mayo, a large square in Buenos Aires. For 30 years the Madres de Plaza de Mayo gathered each week, holding up pictures of their missing loved ones. One of the few gentle moments in Arrabal is a scene that features a brief tribute to the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who dance with the ghosts of their missing children.

Arrabal’s creators, judging by their program notes and a lobby display dedicated to the Desaparecidos, are in earnest regarding their efforts to create a show that is illuminating about this deadly chapter in Argentinian history.

But that’s not what Arrabal is really about. The musical is at heart a lively and visually explosive Tango melodrama. There is no dialogue in Arrabal, so some of the details of the storyline are fuzzy. Arrabal (Micaela Spina), we discover, is the daughter of Rodolfo (Julio Zurita, who is also the co-choreographer). The bold and defiant Rodolfo is one of the first tortured and murdered. Once that preamble is over, we fast-forward 18 years – a decade beyond the dirty war – and that’s when the plot (such as it is) begins. Arrabal is living in “a shanty town outside of Buenos Aires” (according to the program) and is summoned to a tango club owned by El Puma (Carlos Rivarola). El Puma was her father’s best friend and present at the moment Rodolfo was captured. He has found Juan (Juan Cupini), deemed him a suitable husband for Arrabal, and, in an extended and intricate dance sequence, the pair meet. But before the couple dance together she must learn to contend with the threats and challenges from the tough and seedy men and women who populate the underground culture of the bustling city.

Through several scenes and flashbacks, we are given glimpses of the tough life of the city in 1994, the sorrow of Rodolfo’s mother Berta (Valeria Celuroso), and the friendship of Rudolfo and El Puma. Sometimes the scenes come off as excuses for great dancing, such as the very sexy late night gathering where Arrabal is seduced by her rival Nicole (Soledad Buss) and friends. Sometimes the scenes seem to shove the story down an unnecessary path, such as the flashback when El Puma scores two tickets to a soccer game. The sports scene seems to be a way to pander to the passions for the national team. It is also one of a couple of points in the narrative where the accuracy of the show’s vision wanes — more mess than Messi, I’m afraid.

And that brings up the interesting issue of just what Arrabal‘s relationship is to the political present. There are some flashbacks to the country’s dark history, and a through line that is visualized through Rodolfo’s “PV” t-shirt (signifying his opposition to the Videla regime). But the connection of the narrative to Argentina today is pretty well missing. The irony is that this is not really a musical about the political past, nor is it really a show about the Desaparecidos. In essence, Arrabal is a celebration of Argentina’s wonderful dance tradition, the Tango. And that’s okay. It dates back to at least the mid-19th century, and it is well worth huzzahing.

The Argentinian ensemble of Arrabal is wonderful, the band is loud and lively, and the large and small dance numbers are beautiful. Of particular note is the unique dance style of Mario Rizzo, who plays El Duende, a mysterious figure who is ever-present and seemingly all-knowing. (The name comes from Spanish mythology.) Rizzo’s fluid and expressive movements bring in the strengths of street performance, serving as a lively contrast to the stiff and exacting style of the tango. The two choreographers, Trujilla and Zurita, have succeeded in making a number of moments that pop and zing. Except for a couple of weak episodes, the production is choreographed within an inch of its life. What’s forced is the notion that Arrabal seriously explores a murderous historical period. It would be a powerful accomplishment if this traditional, passionate dance form was made to express deep and heartbreaking sorrow. But that’s not what Arrabal is about. There is palpable tension here, but it’s not all that intense or dramatic — the show’s rewards are stylistic, the glories of deft, acrobatic movement.

Maybe it’s too sad and too soon to really come to terms with the horrors of Videla’s dirty war. Arrabal had an initial workshop in Buenos Aires, had a world premiere in Toronto, another workshop in Bogotá, Colombia, and then made its U.S. premiere at the A.R.T. Presumably the show is on its way to New York. For the moment, at least, it feels like a work in progress, one filled with considerable potential. If only the historical resonances with today were more throughly integrated into the plot’s romantic fantasy. In a number of ways, the story of the Desaparecidos parallel America’s current obsession with the creation of “the other.” Replace the “disappeared” with “deplorables” or “snowflakes” or “illegals” and a valuable conversation could well begin.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.


  1. Naomi on May 28, 2017 at 7:26 am

    I thought the repeated two scenes of capture and eventual murder were indications of the cyclical nature of atrocities. High praise for the sheer beauty of the performance.

    • Bill Marx on May 28, 2017 at 9:58 am

      It is the dovetailing of atrocity and beauty that is problem with the show (I think to the point of exploitation). Perhaps it should have been made clear somewhere in the proceedings that America supported the barbarity in Argentina. (Of course, that would have complicated our reaction to what amounts to a reactionary fantasy about a weak woman being saved by strong silent men.) Instead, we are given a cartoon monster who is vanquished at the end. History is not that simple, neat, or entertaining. Great dancing, though, I agree.

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