By Elaine Ávila. Directed by Mercedes Bátiz-Benét. A Puente Theatre and Firehall Arts Centre presentation. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Friday, November 22. Continues until December 14
It’s a pleasure to see new works that centre immigration stories and homecoming stories on Vancouver stages, and playwright Elaine Ávila, who’s of Azorean Portuguese descent, shares her cultural background with Fado: The Saddest Music in the World.
Fado is the music of Portugal; its songs are heavy with melancholy and heartbreak, as beautiful as they are mournful.
Ávila’s Fado focuses on Luisa (Natasha Napoleao), an aspiring fado singer whose parents fled fascist Portugal for Canada, settling first in Vancouver and then in Surrey after her father’s death. Years later, Luisa and her mother, Rosida (Lucia Frangione), are mourning the death of famed fado singer Amália Rodrigues, whose guitarist, Antonio (Judd Palmer), was Rosida’s childhood friend. Luisa convinces Rosida to travel to Portugal in the hope that Antonio will help her become a great fadista. Once they arrive, Antonio and Rosida consider picking up where they left off, Luisa falls for a poet, and both women struggle to figure out where they belong and who they are. There’s also a subplot about homophobia, a recurring question of whether Rosida has fascist sympathies, and the ghost of Amália Rodrigues (Sara Marreiros).
There’s too much packed into Fado’s 85 minutes, and yet also not enough. There are no consequences for the homophobic character, Rosida’s possibly fascist inclinations are laughed off as a joke, and the ghost of Amália is never fully integrated into the narrative. In fact, the play barely mentions Amália by name once it’s invoked her death and its impact on Luisa and Rosida. There are moments that drag and others that speed by too quickly, and all of it is strung together between songs, most performed by Marreiros, with a few by Napoleao.
Fado’s music is gorgeous, but by cramming in so many plot points between tunes, the play begins to feel like a jukebox musical rather than an engrossing story about a daughter and a mother and their connection to the saddest music in the world. There’s no space to breathe, and the songs suffer, too. I’d love to see another iteration of this production that edits down some of the subplots and keeps the fado music central to the mother-daughter relationship, and the attendant familial and cultural complexities that accompany a search for “home”.
Marreiros and Napoleao sing with gusto and passion, and it’s particularly rewarding to hear Napoleao convey Luisa’s deepening connection to the music as her character finally stops trying to intellectualize the songs and just experience them. Patricia Reilly’s impressive set—a large wooden stage with white and blue tiles covering its front as well as the entire backdrop—provides the perfect foundation for Marreiros’s and Napoleao’s numerous performances.
Spending time with these songs and reading Ávila’s generous lyric translations in the program are two experiences I don’t take for granted. But the play feels like it’s struggling with its identity, just like Luisa and Rosida. The answer, though, can be found in the title. Fado: The Saddest Music in the World works best when it stays true to its name.