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A CurtainUp Review

Mystery of the Rose Bouquet

By the time you walk out of the Intar theater, you may want to grab the bouquet of roses and toss it in the air as a tribute to this lovely bouquet of a play, the last to be completed by Manuel Puig. It features only two actors -- Virginia Rambal as a wealthy patient in an exclusive Buenos Aires clinic and Doris DiFarnecio as her nurse -- and a single set by Van Santvoord. But those two actors bring us a whole spectrum of Latin American society and its economic and gender prescribed boundaries, and that single set on the small Intar stage magically expands to accommodate the two women's real and fantasy world.

If you read Puig's novel Kiss of the Spiderwoman or saw the novel or musical adapted from it, you'll recognize several of the hallmarks of that work: The bringing together of two characters from totally different walks of life in an institutional setting, each struggling for psychological dominance and finding escape from the harsh realities of existence into a make believe world.

Unlike the characters in Kiss of the Spider Woman, the women in Mystery of the Rose Bouquet, have arrived voluntarily at the clinic which will become their emotional battlefield . The patient, (both women remain nameless), is a wealthy, bossy widow who's had a nervous breakdown as a result of her beloved twenty-two year old grandson's death in a car accident. She is depressed enough to have checked herself into this clinic but hardly helpless; on the contrary, her need for control is evident in every action and word and her tongue retains its razor edge. The diminutive nurse's subservient manner seems a perfect foil for the imposing, tougher and older woman.

As the play moves forward the layers beneath the women's personas are shed like the petals in the rose bouquet in the vase on a side table. (The symbolism of this always visible prop is clarified in a second act dream sequence). The older woman isn't quite as tough as she seems and the nurse is not quite the poverty-stricken simple woman she claims to be.

It's difficult to synopsize this beguiling story of two women, worlds apart socially but each trapped in the confining mind set represented by the hospital room where they meet and with their only possibility for escape depending on understanding each other and thereby themselves. You see, the real charm and strength of Rose Bouquet is not so much its plot, as the multi-layered characterizations which take the two actors beyond their primary roles, metamorphosing into the characters within the magical terrain of their memories. Doris DiFarnecio especially is a wonder of versatility. The way she devours the food on her patient's untouched tray and the pastries she's sent out to buy speaks volumes of the hunger of a woman starved for love and a different life. She is equally adept at portraying such dream characters, as the older woman's sister and daughter, and confronting her own mother.

Mere praise is insufficient for the already mentioned Van Santvoord set design with its scrim-doored armoire that opens into the world of the two women's inner landscape and a "magical" blanket chest a world outside the clinic. It is a major third player . Also worth mentioning is the evocative background music inspired by Manuel de Falla's "Nights in the Garden of Spain".

It would be nice if Mystery of the Rose Bouquet got enough critical attention to extend beyond its limited run. Since virtue is not always rewarded, catch it now. At $20 a ticket it's very much a "best buy."

By Manuel Puig
English translation: Allan King
Directed by Max Ferrá
Starring Virginia Rambal and Doris DiFarnecio
Sets: Van Santvoord
Lighting: Robert Williams
Costume Design: Ricardo Morin
Music inspired by "Nights in the Garden of Spain" by Manuel de Falla
Intar, 420 W. 42nd St. (212/279-4200)
3/11/98-4/12/98; opens 3/19/98 Extended to 4/19! Reviewed 3/20/98 by Elyse Sommer

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