Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Final Peril of Argentina: The Arts

The arts are huge in Argentina.  Even in times of fiscal crisis, the government generously endows its concert halls, and the results sing for themselves.  For example, the Teatro Colon looks like a train station and, given the six-hour operas performed there, is only slightly less entertaining than one.

Wherever you walk in Buenos Aires—and I do suggest that you walk—art and culture thrust themselves upon you.  Outside the Recoleta Cemetery, tango dancers dance, bodybuilders flex, and jewelers hawk their wares.  A few blocks away, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes provides free admission to those in search of expressionism, or you can stroll around the Floralis Generica, a giant metal flower in the United Nations Plaza.  The flower’s purpose is unclear, but given its location, one assumes it hates America.
Buenos Aires also has a buzzing theatre scene.  Centered around Avenida Corrientes, Argentina’s version of Broadway, the city’s theatres are packed with many New York crossovers, but not necessarily the shows you would expect.  The Phantom of the Opera and Cats are conspicuously amiss, and no one mourns the absence of Wicked.  Instead, The Motherf*cker with the Hat, Cock, The Crucible (retitled to Las Brujas de Salem), and various Pinter plays fill the docket.  Musicals, it seems, are only for special occasions.  But I am nothing if not resourceful.

Through a friend of a friend, I obtained tickets to Forever Young, a jukebox musical populated with rock hits of the 80s.  Like most classic works, Forever Young was developed in Scandinavia, produced in Spain, and eventually deported to Argentina, where it now plays at the Teatro del Picadero.  As established, my Spanish is somewhere between minimal and blight-against-humanity, but given the sometimes-English lyrics and the archetypal themes upon which Forever Young traded, I was able to follow along.  The plot was as follows:
A nurse brings old people into a room at a retirement home.  The nurse leaves, and the old people sing “I Love Rock and Roll.”  The nurse reenters and catches them mid-song, leaping on chairs.  Their sudden mobility interests her less than the fact they’re in the wrong chairs, so she rearranges them and again leaves the room.  The old people sing another song (“Itty-Bitty Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”), this time providing their own percussion with dentures, an oxygen tank, and a cremation urn whose contents they proceed to eat.   At times, the show pauses for a moment of reflection.  For example, when an old woman’s leg falls off, she sings “Barbie Girl” (an apt commentary on the fungible natures of our dreams/limbs), followed by “Forever Young” (a lament about how she may not, in fact, be all that young as she is holding an item that was previously her appendage).  Eventually, the old people tire of the proceedings, shoot the nurse in the head, and sing “I Will Survive.”  Curtain.
 Now, to dwell on perils is human nature or, more specifically, the nature of the human who’s writing this.  For when someone is bludgeoning you—it happens more often than you think; there are lots of people in New Jersey—you tend to dwell on the bludgeoner, rather than the other six billion people not currently effecting your demise.

The fact that Argentina has only three perils (well, four; I’ve omitted the concert of Jewish octogenarians who sang “We Shall Overcome” in Yiddish to a calypso-style MIDI track) speaks highly to the large amount of awesome, non-perilous things that fill it.  These include Iguazú Falls, an array of waterfalls so beautiful they impress even the dour Germans in your hostel.  There’s also amazing cuisine, based around my favorite food groups of pizza, pastries, and gelato.  (The Argentines have, in effect, a national snack time where they serve you croissants in triplicate.  Forget Evita; someone write a musical about medialunas.)  Finally, there’s Argentina’s distinct vibe, a counterintuitive balance between easy-going laissez faire (“This bus may not take me where I want to go, and I’m cool with that”) and barely-contained passion (“If the wrong soccer team wins, I WILL DIE”).  By any application of logic, the country shouldn’t function.  And yet it does, and in its bizarre way, it thrives.

So this guide is not meant to discourage you from visiting Argentina, but rather to exhort you to come prepared—namely, hold onto your wallet, travel by foot, and avoid singing geriatrics at all costs.

Teatro Colon does opera but not, alas, Phantom of the.
The government bombed this theatre in the 80s. Terrorism or prescience?
Iguazú Falls. If you pronounce it without the ú, you will offend the nation.

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