Expectations are so important. I went into El Gallo at the MCA with a notion that I might see something experimental, disjunct, and abstract. Possibly off the hook. It was all those things but with a visceral sense of urgency that spoke to certain but ineffable human qualities. It was unlike anything I'd seen before - therefore unimaginable going into it - and so had to set its own expectations before exceeding them.
The piece was the brainchild of members of the Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes from Mexico City and British composer Paul Barker. They started the process with nothing and, ex nihilo, through years of collaboration with the actors, came up with a framework.
The premise takes 6 actors and throws them together with little time to prepare a choir concert, showing every step of the process from the auditions to the performance. At every step of the way, characters define themselves in spite of singing in an entirely made up language.
It's like Waiting for Guffman with absolutely no irony or sarcasm and sung in gibberish.
But the premise was more of a situation than a plot, so the success of the show rests entirely on how the characters act and react to this situation - one that most audience members never get to see.
Indeed, the audition and rehearsal process is probably the most intense part of a theatrical production, and yet the audience only gets to see the finished product, with all the wrinkles ironed out, the insecurities and inhibitions safely locked away under a veneer of forced sincerity.
El Gallo hides nothing away, and the audience gets to see something more real, laid bare, with all of the practiced posturing stripped away.
The characters on stage are actors and are played by actors, but the basis for the characters come from the actors' real lives, exaggerated for performance. I found a parallel between this and Chicago's Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind which also presents theater based on the reality of the performers' lives. But while TML functions as a sort of an individual This American Life, the story, Los Habitantes do away with language and so use a more physical language.
It requires a whole different kind of actor, one with a deeper and longer sense of commitment, one comfortable with exploring and exposing their personal issues. As said by director Claudio Valdés Kuri, Los Habitantes aren't actors, they are interpreters. As such, they don't act like someone else but interpret the situation. It made for an intense performance with a dizzying level of commitment.
Accompanying them was a double string quartet led by W.J. Raynovich, artistic director of the MAVerick Ensemble, who played Barker's contemporary-not-modernist score with a similar level of commitment - though not 2 years worth! - and intuitive intonation.
Highly recommended. Performances at the MCA through May 1.