The title of the play Enamorarse de un incendio, which roughly translates as “falling in love with a fire,” comes from the final scene of the play, in which a group of screenwriters play a version of Pictionary and discuss their plans for a television script. One character describes a painting of pyromania as “like being in love with forest fires.” The association of love with fire, and all of its wild, motivating, and destructive connotations, signals the play’s relationship with Romeo and Juliet. This play, written and directed by Chilean playwright Eduardo Pavez Goye, is inspired by the themes of Shakespeare’s play, but it is not a direct adaptation. Instead, we are offered three new interwoven stories of star-crossed love.
Over the course of ninety minutes, the production, imported from Mexico’s Foro Shakespeare, follows these lovers through desire, commitment, and heartbreak. The narrative that frames the play concerns three screenwriters tasked with revising a script at the home of their assistant. They are telling a love story, and their personal lives intervene. Two of the writers, Vicente and Viviana, are former lovers who separated after a domestic tragedy, and the latter is now romantically involved with the third writer, a younger man. As the tensions between these writers mount, two other stories are spliced in: Julián, a young artist, falls in love and elopes with the wife of an art dealer and Renata, a young woman in financial and emotional distress, dies, leaving behind a suicidally devastated lover.
The individual performances are a highlight in the production. The cast of four brings an emotional intensity to their characters across the three stories, each performer playing multiple roles and exploring many shades of love. Verónica Merchant and Luis Miguel Lombana give particularly impressive performances as the pair of older lovers, communicating a shared history and unfinished business. Hamlet Ramírez plays several versions of the young lover, emphasizing restraint and never falling into cliché. Itari Marta, though, anchors the production with commanding performances as Celeste, the screenwriter’s manic assistant, Renata, the dying young woman in debt to the mob, and Marlene, an artist’s muse. Swinging between tears and laughter, Marta’s characters are emotionally raw and exposed. In a scene where Renata confesses her failed dog fighting exploits to her mother, she is frightened, guilty, and unhinged. In another scene, playing Celeste, she stands in the foreground silently reacting to a phone call while the other characters argue behind her. A range of emotions wash over her face as she hears devastating news, crystalizing the heightened feelings of the play.
The production features three simultaneous performance spaces: a box set of a small living room; a large screen above the set that displays live video of the performance filmed by two camera operators; and a “backstage” space off right with a prop table and a costume rack. The performers are nearly always visible to the audience as they move on and off stage and as they are filmed and projected on the screen. This spatial arrangement reflects and reproduces the screenwriters’ narrative as they discuss the writing of a love story for television, while also being transformed into a simulation of television during the performance. The audience is constantly reminded of the actors’ work as actors in addition to the reality of the characters they portray. It also encourages the audience to consider the differences between live and filmed performances. While the screen offers the heightened intimacy of close-ups and guides the viewers’ focus, it also flattens and distorts the bodies that are visible below. It allows the play to roam between versions of love as real or artificial, expressed or enacted, literally three dimensional or two dimensional.
The projected images that double the performers, the camera operators who move in and around the performance spaces, and the visible backstage emphasize the performative and mediated nature of the play. Throughout the production, we see characters whose interactions are refracted through external objects, including a television script, a painting, and numerous cell phones. The characters feel intense emotions, but their conversations are often halting or one-sided. When the audience sees the performers’ bodies enlarged and flattened on the screen, or when we see them change costumes, dab makeup, and mentally and emotionally prepare for the next scene, it calls attention to love as an internally felt emotion and love as external displays for others.
As a mostly English-language-monolingual member of the audience, I have to admit that I found much of the Spanish text of the play inaccessible. Captions, displayed stage left on a flat screen monitor, summarized and commented on the action of the play, but torrents of expressive language washed over me. This had an effect similar to seeing a non-English opera performance, where emotion, movement, and spectacle are heightened and privileged over the discursive content. The actors’ vocal and physical performances conveyed the relationships and conflicts of the play in ways that felt precise, but also broad and archetypal.
The language barrier also added a dimension to the themes of the performance. In each of the stories, we see divisions between insiders and outsiders. Viviana and Vicente share a past that the other characters cannot access; Julían exploits his relationship with the art dealer as he separates him from his wife; and Renata’s parents play largely unspeaking mirrors to a love story they only hear about after the fact. My experience of Enamorarse de un incendio highlighted the ways audiences are always outside of a performance, voyeuristically experiencing the lives, actions, and emotions of the characters. In this way, the production allows the audience to explore the contours of love, while also recognizing that, like Romeo and Juliet, lovers always create their own worlds.
Aaron Krall is a lecturer in the department of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he teaches drama and first-year writing, and writes about theater and the city. He holds his PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an MS in theatre history from Illinois State University and his BA in English from University of St. Francis.