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Photograph by Jim Caldwell

Slapstick Magician: Herbert Sigüenza captures the comic expertise of Cantinflas in a new play.

Wit and Worlds of Words

Teatro Visión and Herbert Sigüenza conjure up the spirit of the great Mexican film comedian ¡Cantinflas!

By Marianne Messina

AS A GRINGA with rudimentary Spanish at Teatro Visión's production of ¡Cantinflas!, I maybe missed most of the nostalgia, the many references to the early films of Mario Moreno (a.k.a. Cantinflas) and a lot of the language. You will hear that the play is in Spanish and English, but as a retrospective of Cantinflas' life, the scenes that would have originally been spoken in Spanish—which is most of them—are spoken in Spanish, sin traducción.

So what's left? Rhythm, intonation, facial expression, body language—and it just so happens that Cantinflas was a master at all of these. In the title role, Herbert Sigüenza (of Culture Clash fame) shifts in and out of the signature voices that Cantinflas fans love to imitate, and he takes full advantage of Moreno's physical shtick—for example, shadowing a sexy traditional Spanish dancer (VIVIS) with an obscene roll of his hips. After telling the audience in English that there's no way to translate Catinfleando (Moreno's popular routine of confounding his listeners with high-flown nonsense), Sigüenza/Cantinflas spins around, suggesting a magician about to disappear, and returns full circle speaking Spanish. This clever gesture makes it clear how a sharp personality based on wit can disappear behind the veil of language.

In an interview with an American journalist, which forms the frame for the play, the 81-year-old Moreno tells reporter Ana Williams (Emily Duarte-Rosenthal) that the language barrier was his biggest impediment to making it big in the United States. Cantinflas was just shy of a national hero in Mexico when his role in Around the World in 80 Days brought him to Hollywood. In the play, there is a scene on the Oscars' red carpet where a media announcer tries to corral American stars like David Niven, and they all hurry away without a word. Meanwhile, Cantinflas graciously grants an interview. In this subtle moment there is both the sense of Moreno's charismatic fluidity and an awareness of his lowly status in the Hollywood hierarchy.

Yet this scene also demonstrates how Cantinflas managed to ride the coattails of filmic lines that don't extend beyond "Yes, sir" (as he later comments to Ana) and maintain the same one-up self-assurance that drove so many of his popular "con man" sketches, and with the same wit that refers to the United States, in Su Excelencia, as "Dollaronia."

Sigüenza, who both wrote and stars in the play, suggests a man whose instinct is to parody, who sees something striking, say, a matador (spectacularly costumed in a brief sketch), and has the paradoxical urge to both emulate and ridicule. It's appropriate that the show demands a cast with similar talents. Mexico City native Alejandro Cárdenas is hilarious as Cantinflas' early sidekick, Manuel Medel, playing the gullible straight man who falls for Cantinflas' wordplay setups or lisping, trembling, hunchbacking his way like an Igor behind Cantinflas. And Ezequiel Guerra Jr. does a wonderful, handlebar-mustached (if queenish) film director.

Sigüenza's 81-year-old Cantinflas is hobbled but elegant, slow talking but verbally frisky. He meets Ana in a stately, velvet-curtained sitting room (lighting/set designer David Ferlauto) and he recounts his life story by way of a two-zoned set arrangement that mounts his early sketches downstage, more brightly lit and present to the audience within a representational semicircle of footlights. This is the Cantinflas that Sigüenza wants the audience to connect to.

A recent performance had 10-year-olds in stitches at rapid-fire jokes—ouch to those with poor Spanish fluency. My only suggestion is that, in honor of a comedian who represented the pelado (poor guy) yet also had great love for the opera, Sigüenza follow an operatic concession to the "linguistically challenged" and offer English superscripts.

¡Cantinflas!, a Teatro Visión production, plays Thursday-Friday at 8pm and Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Oct. 23 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza Theater, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $8-$18. (408.272.9926)

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From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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