There is a startling similarity between the lush melodramas of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the Spanish-language soap opera. With the exception, of perhaps intent, both contain tragic and comic elements, often in the same stroke, hyperbolic acting and a penchant for luxury and glamour. Director Carlos Diaz brilliantly picks up on these productive parallels in his outrageous, Cuban-ized adaptation of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.
With the exception of Petra’s mother and her daughter, Gaby, the other characters are women played by men, which on the surface level functions as gag-oriented homage to drag, though it feels insufficient to stop there and say that Diaz was only in it for the laughs. The original Fassbinder film masquerades as a story about lesbians, though the source material is largely autobiographical, deriving from a similar male-on-male romantic encounter that Fassbinder himself experienced. Of course, its easy to see this as a closeted gay narrative “usurp[ing] a lesbian vocabulary,” but this feels like a simplification, a caricature of lesbian romance insofar as lesbians, like all women really, are melodramatic and obsessive and irrational. Vain, but also quite fashionable. Fassbinder was a master satirist. I don’t believe his rendering of Petra was a transliteration of gay desire onto a lesbian one so much as a careful articulation of the melodramatic spirit– that is, the spirit of what it feels like to be in love or forsaken or any of the above tragicomic sentiments– via its performative analog. The feminine. The history of drag, I promise you, predates the ascent of RuPaul’s Drag Race and its commercial flotsam and jetsam. Suffice it to say, if gender is merely a performance, why not expand your range? The drag queen, in adopting his own feminine persona, both playfully teases the conceit of gender itself, and exercises a dimension of his own personality that isn’t readily apparent in his “male form.” Whether or not you buy the Judith Butler explanation of gender and the circa 1960s politics behind drag, the stage would appear to be the ideal medium to hash out these concerns.
This is where Diaz succeeds. Casting men as lesbians is of course funny and pays tribute to the campy spirit of Fassbinder, but in this case the brandishing of performative gender in the context of a Cuban, or more generally Latinx heritage (which still still very much drips with the toxicity of machismo and homophobia, as well as an entrenched acceptance of gender binaries anchored by the cult of Catholicism) felt new and necessary and critical of what I imagine a Spanish-speaking audience takes to be true.
I imagine the play was not as funny as it should’ve been for non-Spanish speaking audiences. The subtitled translation was not very good. Instead of finding English language parallels to certain Spanish puns and coy phrasings, the translator must’ve decided simply to summarize the meaning with no eye towards humor. Consequentially a lot of the comical dimensions must’ve seen sparse to someone relying on the subtitles. Beyond that, this is very much a play meant for a Latinx or Hispanic audience, because of how much the adaptation relies on prior knowledge of telenovela stereotypes as the cultural inflection to an original that is plot-wise practically identical. Nevertheless, I’d say the subtitles were a success compared to last year’s Diaz production staged at the Kennedy Center (Antigonon, un contingente epico), which was very Cuban dialect and slang heavy that even I, a native Spanish speaker had trouble keeping up. In that production the subtitles were unable to keep up with the speed with which the actors delivered their lines.
In any case, Fernando Hechavarria who plays the titular character, steals the show (is the show). His Petra is the Shakespearean telenovela lead, the unabashedly vain madrastra, the sexually liberated mujer independiente, la marica/maricon (the Spanish equivalent of f*ggot) in one fell swoop.
*Performances of the The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant took place at the Kennedy Center from May 16 – 17, 2018. The production was staged by Teatro el Público and directed by Carlos Diaz as part a limited event in conjunction with the Center’s “Artes de Cuba” showcase.