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“Even Under Bitterness”

May 6 to May 15
Castillo Theatre, 543 W. 42nd Street
Presented by Castillo Theatre
Friday-Sunday @ 7:30 PM
$ 35 general admission; $20 seniors and students
Box Office (212)941-1234 www.castillo.org
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, May 9, 2016

Poetry can be a force that burns into the consciousness of those who either fear the power of words or relish their effect. Castillo Theatre is presenting an evening of the powerful poetry of Guatemalan poet and activist Otto Rene Castillo (1936 -1967), whose name the theater adopted in honor of his legendary fight for social justice.

Otto Rene Castillo emerged as a social activist already in high school when the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a right-wing CIA supported coup in 1954. He organized his fellow students against the military dictatorship and was exiled for the first time as a 17 year old. His subsequent life alternated between remarkable success as an award-winning poet and a political refugee—he was imprisoned, exiled, spent three years as a student at the University of Leipzig in East Germany, returned to Guatemala as a guerilla fighter, was captured, tortured, and burnt to death. Castillo’s poetry has the Brechtian quality of direct statement mixed with lyrical and even elegiac beauty—especially in the original Spanish the poetry has a forceful resonance not quite attainable in German (translation by Reinhard Thoma) or English (translation by Margaret Randall).


The staging by director Hans Melzer who came from Munich, Germany presents us with a selection of Castillo’s poems in three languages accompanied by an ensemble of three musicians. German actor Gabi Heller (who is also listed as dramaturg) performs the poems in highly articulated and emotionally charged German; Castillo’s own Madelyn Chapman renders the same lines in a gentle and delicate manner which brought out another layer; Olivia Luna’s beautifully modulated mezzo filled the space with the original Spanish lines—fierce rage and erotic passion filled those words and her body undulated with the rhythms of these passions. The personality contrasts among these actors as well as the spirit of the poetry was supported by three musicians: on piano Michael Armann (composer/musician from Munich); on saxophone, percussion, and vocals international musician Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi; also on percussion and vocals New Yorker David Belmont – all three blended beautifully in sound and added a jazzy improvisational element that underscored the shifts in tone in the poetry. The compact stage was enhanced by Igor Malinowski’s video design projected on the back wall and the ingenious ambient lighting by technical director Joseph Spirito.


The collaboration between Castillo Theatre under the artistic director, Dan Friedman and Hans Melzer is due to both their involvement in social activism which brought them to Otto Rene Castillo’s poetry. Hans Melzer, Gabi Heller, and Michael Armann had been staging for some time in Germany a work-in-progress performance piece, Selbst Unter der Bitterkeit. Then they discovered Castillo Theatre, approached them, and the talk about a collaboration resulted in the present work. With the support of the Cultural Department of the City of Munich and Castillo Theatre under the aegis of All Stars this fine artistic example of international collaboration could be an inspiration for New York, a city that could do so much more to bring together artists from all over the world, not as a commercial enterprise but for the purpose of real cultural encounter and expression.

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