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Sizzling Tango, Dizzying Story

The Lady Matador's Hotel at Central Works presents dynamic characters in a wanting narrative.

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Arrogance. Honor. Death. Thus begins the stage adaptation of playwright Cristina García's tense and titillating novel, The Lady Matador's Hotel. Continuing an association that began in 2018 with the production of the Bay Area-based writer's well-received King of Cuba, director Gary Graves and a forceful Central Works cast sprint through the two-hour, character-driven play.

The lives of a half dozen guests at a luxury hotel somewhere in Latin America present themselves in episodic scenes delivered in rapid staccato. Like the pounding hooves of an onrushing bull or bullets exploding from an assault rifle, the pace mirrors the central action. The most dynamic scenes revolve around Suki (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), a Mexican-Japanese female matadora in town to compete in the first Battle of the Lady Matadors in the Americas, and Colonel Martín Abel (Steve Ortiz), a lustful and lethal man who has committed atrocities during the country's long-lasting civil war. For Suki, there isn't a tango she wouldn't join with man or beast; Abel also. Their every encounter is a wrestling match of words, glances, glares, growls and purrs — especially effective in a scene in which they perform a sizzling, subtle tango, and another in which they share fine Cuban cigars.

In the mix with them is Aura (Neiry Rojo), a former guerrilla and waitress at the Hotel Miraflor. After learning Abel is responsible, she aims to avenge her brother's death with violence beyond simply spitting on the colonel's chorizo. Initially unrelated is the story of adoption lawyer Gertrudis Stüber (Sylvia Kratins) a regal and entirely unsympathetic character who sells babies at outrageous prices to desperate wannabe parents, including poet Ricardo (Rudy Guerrero, who doubles as Pajarita, the hotel's colorful, beyond-vibrant fortune teller). A third strand; a waiter, Miguel (Gabriel Montoya), who falls in love with Aura but is destined to meet a fateful end when he arouses the colonel's suspicion and is falsely targeted as a terrorist.

The guests' lives crisscross in the confines of a hotel where, outside, terrorists blow up cathedrals and enemies lurk around ever corner. Secrets are revealed: the bullfighter's vulnerabilities include her mother's death at childbirth and the new life that she discovers is growing in her womb. Criminals are caught: the lawyer finds herself arrested and tossed in jail to rot in self-professed "rage with no vanishing point." Bulls and babies are at risk: Will Suki fight the bull and threaten the safety of her unborn child? Will Ricardo rescue his Baby Isabella before it is too late? There's more; all of it summarized by saying that in the end, lives are lost, changed, or left suspended. When arrogance slays honor, death results.

While presenting dynamic, compelling characters, the play lacks an equally powerful narrative. Despite strong themes — corruption, war, violence, heroism, humor, power, familial love, sexual attraction, and obsession — the plot feels thin and less than organic. The short, vignetted scenes of nearly equal length and actors too often entering and exiting contribute to the disconnect. Interactions allowed to play out at slower pace or overlapping or co-occurring scenes (with fewer actors in and out) might convince us the story lines are inevitable and not due only to happenstance or literary manipulation. Another benefit of decelerating? A handful of Garcia's lush, lovely lines lost due to rapid delivery at Sunday's performance would be retrieved.

But none of that outweighs what is some of the best choreography and stage fighting I've seen this season. Choreographer Christy Cote and fight direction by Dave Maier shine in not only the aforementioned tango, but in a scene in which Aura monologues about violence she intends to wage — punctuated by high kicks, deep lunges, and snapping head turns. One of the physical highlights comes when Aura and Abel ultimately battle. The punches, belly kicks, and heel-stomp-to-face are so well-executed it is horrific to watch without reminding oneself it is stage fighting, not real.

After 65 new works premiered in the intimate theater space that has audiences in two rows on three sides of productions, Graves is clearly in command of the challenges. Regardless of the seat, the staging is such that there is no "front," "back," or even "fourth wall." We're four feet from the actors, who never flinch or pull back but instead thrust Garcia's evocative prose and exhilarating characters into our laps.

Through Nov. 10, $22-38, various times, Central Works at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley, CentralWorks.org

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