Enthralled by Words

In Burning Patience, Borderlands skillfully turns Neruda's poetry into a play

Bringing the precision of poetry—Shakespeare's iambic pentameter notwithstanding—into the theater is a perilous undertaking that too often falls flat.

Many great plays are poetic, of course, but the reverse is rarely true. Even the greatest poetry struggles to live and breathe as it moves from the page to the stage.

Trying to dramatize a man's love of poetry can be just as deadly, of course.

But Borderlands Theater is here to show you how it's done. With its latest production, which opened Friday night at Zuzi's Theater, the Tucson troupe successfully puts the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda front and center, along with some of his poems and three characters enthralled with his words.

The play is Burning Patience by Antonio Skármeta, a Chilean who also turned this gentle tale into a novel and a film. Broadly speaking, it's about the relationship between Neruda (Roberto Guajardo) and Mario, the star-struck fisherman's son who delivers his mail.

During their daily encounters, the earnest Mario (Jason N. Chavez) learns about the power of words and the magic of metaphor from the old man who shot to fame at age 19 with Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. The erotic collection, published in 1924, remains Neruda's best-known work.

Mario, who has fallen hard for the beautiful Beatriz González (Maria Gawne), wants to be a poet so that he can express his higher self to her. In the meantime, he's not above doing a little wooing with the master's poems.

None of this sits well with Rosa González (Rosanne Couston), the widow who knows what the fancy words are doing to her daughter. Thanks to this tall, toothy fellow's strategic use of poetry, Beatriz is hot enough to heat any room she enters. Who needs a fireplace with this suddenly sultry teenager around?

Burning Patience takes place in Isla Negra, Chile, between 1969 and 1973, a period that saw socialist Salvador Allende elected president. Neruda, an Allende supporter and one of his closest advisers, would also rise to spectacular heights. In 1971, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

If the whole postman-and-poet story sounds familiar, you might have seen the 1994 movie Il Postino/The Postman, which transferred the story to Italy and became the first foreign language film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar since Cries and Whispers (1973).

Tucson theatergoers of a certain age might also remember that Burning Patience was one of the first plays staged by the brand-new Borderlands Theater in 1987.

The director, then and now, is Borderlands co-founder Barclay Goldsmith. He brings all elements of the production into exquisite balance, from the evenly matched performances to the quietly effective sets, costumes and lights. Of particular distinction is the sound design by Jim Klingenfus.

Two other artists from the 1987 production return for another stab at Burning Patience: Barbea Williams, whose languid choreography feels utterly right, and Rebeca Cartes, a Chilean exile whose musical contributions are lovely.

The play, translated by Marion Peter Holt, is a tender and fragile-feeling story that convincingly renders all sorts of love: romantic love, familial love, platonic love and, not least, the love of place and poetry.

Chavez, already a Borderlands veteran with 10 shows under his belt, is quite good as the endearing postman in the middle of it all. Guajardo plays Neruda with a perpetual twinkle in his eyes. It's a fine performance, full of sly grace notes.

Gawne, a Gaslight Theatre veteran acting in her first Borderlands show, plays Beatriz with welcome playfulness and creates a sweet rapport with Chavez. Couston is directed to wonderful effect as the not-amused widow.

The 80-minute play mentions Neruda's communism and his brief career as Chile's ambassador to France, but the poet's controversial political opinions are not explored as fully as they are in the movie.

Pablo Neruda died in 1973, less than two weeks after Allende was ousted in a military coup that ushered in an era of brutal fascism and bloody turmoil. The play's abrupt ending leaves us with a chilling taste of what's to come.

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