San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Theater

‘Juan Vainas’ cracks up audiences, celebrates Costa Rican culture

For lack of a better word, “Los Enredos de Juan Vainas” is completely loco. For two hours, actors run frantically around the stage. They tell dirty jokes. They scream at the tops of their lungs. They fall over each other, get stuck in ladders, pull each other’s pants down, faint, slam doors, and – at least once – kiss a dead fish. The energy never stops flowing; even after the final bow, the performers are still cracking themselves up.

The play, which roughly translates as “The Entanglements of Juan Vainas,” is about as Tico as gallo pinto: A goofball campesino named Juan has fallen in love with beautiful Rosalinda. Unfortunately for Juan, Rosalina’s father is the self-obsessed deputy Don Zenón Becerra, who despises Juan and wants his daughter to marry the slimy gentleman Lisardo. Juan conscripts his diminutive sidekick Chibolo to help woo Rosalinda by serenading her at her bedroom window. The scene is very sweet and romantic until Don Zenón chases the duo away.

Then  Juan and Chibolo accidentally enter a haunted house, where they encounter a mummy, a ghost, and some kind of zombie, and everyone chases everyone else through the living room for nearly 40 minutes. For all intents and purposes, the second act has almost nothing to do with the first.

“Juan Vainas” is produced by Teatro El Triciclo, one of San José’s many commercial theater companies that produce plays and then keep them going indefinitely. Unlike the National Theater or National Theater Company, El Triciclo has no interest in heavy subjects or even stories that make sense. The purpose of their productions is to have fun and make money, and dear lord, do they succeed.

If you have a fondness for Saturday morning cartoons, “Juan Vainas” is incredibly funny. The play is a continuous stream of slapstick and verbal hijinks, like an Abbott and Costello comedy set in turn-of-the-century Costa Rica. The dialogue is packed with silly puns, raunchy double-entendres, and ultra-specific Tico references, much of which is far too obscure for your run-of-the-mill Spanish major. (Indeed, Juan Vainas himself stutters so manically and talks so fast that most of his dialogue will sound like gibberish, unless you have spoken Spanish since toddlerhood and are studied in local slang.) Some of the blocking looks like it was actually inspired by “Tom and Jerry” – in one scene, a furious Don Zenón imitates a bull by dragging the ground with his foot, as if readying to charge.

For foreigners, “Juan Vainas” will offer a healthy dose of anthropology: You will see papier-mâché máscaras, traditional dances, and celebratory hand-wagging. You will hear folk songs and a variety of bombas (the Tico equivalent of dirty limericks). While the plot is almost pointless, the story is both farcical and folkloric, and you will learn a lot about how Ticos perceive their own patrimony.

For Costa Ricans, “Juan Vainas” is gut-bustingly hilarious, as demonstrated by the audience last Sunday. It bears mentioning that the house was packed, with nary a vacant seat, and the guests were laughing more rambunctiously than I have ever seen or heard in Costa Rica. People were sobbing, even gasping, with laughter. Nearly every line and gesture sent waves of mirth down the aisles. The cackling was so passionate that I was sometimes concerned that folks might choke on their popcorn.

This is a unique pleasure – to see local people laughing at extremely regional humor. While an expat will likely enjoy “Juan Vainas” for many reasons, the comedy is particularly geared toward born-and-bred Costa Ricans. This is no accident. As the program notes explicitly state: “With this play we want to celebrate our traditions, starting by preserving the legends, characters, jingles, bombas, songs, music, landscapes, costumes, and everything that makes us proud to be Costa Rican.”

Pretty high aspirations for a play that relies on fart jokes. But that’s the beauty of folklore: It’s down-to-earth.

As for the production, “Juan Vainas” is impressively staged, thanks to Mauricio Astorga’s precise direction and the army of set-designers and technicians required to keep the action fluid. The show is filled with lighting cues, sound effects, recorded music, strobe lights, swinging doors, and scores of props, yet the play’s momentum never slows, even when the principal characters are sleeping on a sofa.

At the heart of “Juan Vainas” is Juan Vainas himself, played by Ricardo Jiménez. The actor is so emotive, so elastic and bouncy, that it’s hard to believe that such a clumsy character could be played by such an exacting performer. Jiménez spends most of the play mumbling, sputtering, screaming, hollering, and even weeping, yet never does his voice give out. The man stays onstage for almost every scene, yet Jiménez barely seems to break a sweat. If Vaudeville hadn’t died, Jiménez would have conquered it.

Teatro El Triciclo performs several different plays at once, and in two separate locations, and I look forward to catching the others. But compared to farces like “The Body on the Fifth Floor” and “Run for Your Wife” (the movie of which was widely considered the worst film of 2013), “Juan Vainas” is perhaps the best introduction to El Triciclo’s oeuvre. The play is ridiculous, but no homage could be more loving of its origins.

And if you like what you see, there’s good news: The Juan Vainas Christmas show opens in November.

“Los Enredos de Juan Vainas” plays at Teatro El Triciclo, Escazú. Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m. ₡7,000 ($14). Info: Theater website.

Contact Robert Isenberg at risenberg@ticotimes.net

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