Jose Rivera is the first Puerto Rican to earn an Oscar nomination – for his adaptation of the Motorcycle Diaries. He was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in the mainland USA when his parents emigrated there to try and realize their American dream. They did manage to send two of their eleven children to college and Jose was one of them. In Boleros Rivera tells a very personal tale – set in two time periods. In the first Flora (his mother) has just had her heart broken by a philandering fiancé and she then goes off to her cousin’s to repair it. There at a street corner, over the strains of her (and her two-timing fiance’s) favorite Bolero, she meets Eusebio, an ensign in the National Guard who has missed his bus. As Eusebio misses his bus two weeks in a row, the two fall in love and decide to get married. Flora’s father and mother have already lost a child to the evil maws of America and they listen in horror as Eusebio tells them that he and Flora will move there too.
Then we jump forward 40 years to Alabama to meet Flora and Eusebio again. Now Eusebio has had both legs amputated due to diabetes, and Flora looks after him all day long, from cleaning him up and feeding him to withholding the remote and the Mets games when he is acting up! Into this mix walk in a young Puerto Rican couple who want to get married and are seeking counsel from Flora and Eusebio. Eusebio tells them what life has been like for Flora as she looks after him day after day. He then says he saw an angel who told him he is about to die and needs to confess. He confesses to a few extramarital affairs that shock his long-suffering wife! Flora threatens to kill him and consigns the Mets (Eusebio’s favorite team) to perdition.
Running through the play is the theme of slow decay of the Puerto Rican life style, the despair among young and old alike on the island, the visions of the American dream they all carry, and how the dream is shattered as the Puerto Ricans are far from embraced by the mainstream. But it really is an ode to love, told through an exploration of the various kinds of love one encounters at different stages in life. There is Flora’s young and idealistic love for her fiancé, there is Manuel’s selfish love that tells him Flora is the gem he should have but there are countless other women he needs because he is a man and men are different from women, there is Eusebio’s love for Flora and this is a pure and idealistic love, there is Flora and Eusebio’s love for their unborn children that forces them to leave Puerto Rico and go to New York so they can provide for these children, there is Flora’s love for the crippled and bed-ridden Eusobio – now a staid and in the groove love, there is Eusebio’s love for the old Flora – now a love full of the burden of gratitude. But Eusebio’s dream of the angel of death sets in motion a cataclysm that cause Flora to look at his infidelities and realize that Eusebio’s love for her still matters to her. Eusebio forgoes a euthanasia solution and when asked why all he can reply is he’d rather be like this and still be with Flora! In the end the triumph of love over death, pain, disillusionment, infidelity is the strong message that Rivera sends to us. He does all this boldly with wit and humor and charm. The play does not have a dull moment and the dialog crackles with one-liners like “As much as Jesus loved his cross”, when Flora tells her mother “I thought you love Pappy”!
The production is excellent with minimal but highly effective sets and Carey Perloff’s directs deftly. The cast does a commendable job and does double duty in the two time periods of the play. Lela Loren plays the young Flora with a naivete and charm coupled with a will of iron that is extremely touching. Drew Cortese’s young Eusebio is again naïve but ebullient. Flora’s mother and father are played by Rachel Ticotin and Robert Beltran. The back and forth from love to hate between this couple is that of two who cannot stand each other and yet cannot live without each other. And the same couple play the older Flora and Eusebio with an equal amount of familiarity, love and hatred between them. Does Rivera want to tell us that we play out the same old drama generation after generation? Only the characters change but not the screenplay? But that in the end the love that binds couples together forever is of the “in sickness and in health till death do us part” kind? That is something we feel we knew all along, but Eusebio and Flora’s journey brings the message home with a brutal kind of reality.
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