- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

Sealed off from traffic by potholes pockmarking the streets adjacent to the nearly completed Washington Convention Center, the Warehouse Theater is an interesting, bohemian place to attend a show.
But you have to find it first. If, after picking your way through heaps of construction detritus, you reach this black box venue, you'll discover that the delightful GALA Hispanic Theatre is staging an entertaining selection of rarely seen bawdy playlets by the great Spanish literary master Miguel de Cervantes.
Many Americans think of Cervantes as the originator of the Broadway musical "Man of La Mancha," which he was, sort of. Except that what he actually penned was a picaresque tome of interlocking adventures entitled "Don Quixote" (1602) arguably the world's first novel.
Soldier, adventurer, author, Cervantes led a full and eventful life that informed his writings, which also included poetry and plays up to 30 of the latter, according to the writer himself. Of these, only a couple survive.
During the staging of a full-length play in Cervantes' time, it was customary to fill intermissions with short entertainments while the sets were being changed. These were called interludes, or "entremeses" in Spanish. They might be short musical sets or verses, but they soon developed into little one-act comic plays specifically aimed at finding favor with the restless lower element in the audience.
Initially, characters were stock commedia dell'arte types, but Cervantes and others took them further, adding easily identifiable street characters and peasants, dirty old men, adulterous wives, dishonest professionals, professional swindlers, and, of course, eternally good-humored prostitutes and drunkards. Unquestionably, some of these entertainments risked trouble with the censors of the time either for their low moral tone or for unacceptable elements of political or religious satire.
The plots of these interludes are a lot like sitcoms a little improbable but driven by the always-humorous personal defects of each character. After having a great deal of fun at the expense of most of its stock characters, each interlude in this production dissolves into a musical number as the actors disappear into the wings, just as they would have done in Cervantes' time, before the next act's curtain rises.
The GALA ensemble, under the spirited direction of Hugo Medrano, presented four of these interludes during Sunday's performances: "El rufian viudo llamado Trampagos" ("The Widowed Pimp"), "El viejo celoso" ("The Jealous Old Man"), "El juez de los divorcios" ("The Divorce Judge"), and "La cueva de Salamanca" ("The Cave in Salamanca").
Like plays within a play, the interludes have been surrounded with snippets excerpted from one of Cervantes' actual full-length dramas. Each was introduced and escorted off by a lively troupe of musicians and singers performing numbers composed for this production by Carlos Rodriguez.
GALA's evening of interludes is not immortal theater, but it's an enjoyable night out, nonetheless. Now more than ever, it's good to enjoy an evening of just plain fun without any redeeming social value. It's also a treat to catch a glimpse of another richly literary European culture, one that's becoming well-established in various flavors in this region. While Cervantes' interludes are presented in Spanish, GALA makes it easy for non-Spanish speakers to join in the revels, providing simultaneous translations through portable headsets. The running translations frequently miss the double entendres and inside jokes, of course, but there's more than enough left to amuse even the stodgiest Anglo.
And if that's not enough, GALA's cast will help you along still further. Mugging and grimacing in the exaggerated commedia dell'arte style, GALA's rotating cast of actors will fill in with exaggerated body language any lines an English speaker might have missed. Particularly entertaining is the sensationally funny slapstick of rubbery-faced Menchu Esteban, but the rest of the cast does its part as well, with Cynthia Benjamin's twin portrayals of sex-starved young wives, Peter Gil's two hormonally challenged old men, and Harold Ruiz's satyrical cleric.
The two best skits of the evening were "The Divorce Judge" and "The Cave in Salamanca." In the former, a series of married couples parades before the court in an attempt to dissolve their less-than-perfect unions. The judge wisely concludes that these pairs evenly matched, if ill-matched deserve one another.
In the latter, the most fanciful farce on the program, an adulterous lady, Dona Leonarda (Ms. Benjamin) and her sex-starved maidservant, Cristina (Ms. Esteban) try to take advantage of the husband Don Pancracio's (Juan Sell's) absence by fooling around with a depraved cleric, Sacristan Reponce (Mr. Ruiz), and a disreputable barber, the aptly named Barbero (Jose Armando Brown). A no-good, wandering student (Carlos Castillo) complicates matters but saves the day when Don Pancracio suddenly returns by tricking him into believing that the other visitors are actually devils incarnate. In the interlude's sidesplitting conclusion, Reponce and Barbero play along like hungry zombies out of George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead."
Again, this is not Pulitzer Prize drama, even if it was penned by Cervantes, but it is the work of one of the world's greatest authors, one who figured out how to transform an ephemeral entertainment into something cleverly structured and new. It's also a delightful change of pace from the serious fare usually presented by Washington's smaller theaters, the perfect antidote for a depressing winter that has no intention of loosening its grip anytime soon.

WHAT: GALA Hispanic Theatre's "Cervantes: Maestro del Entremes."
WHERE: Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW
WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through March 16

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