“Once you see it, you will know exactly why this play should be done today, in the capital of the United States. It’s absolutely tied to everything that we’re going through.”
Danilo Gambini is referring to Agreste (Drylands), a work by Newton Moreno, whom he calls “one of the loudest and most powerful voices in LGBTQ theater in Brazil.” Agreste helped establish Moreno as a leading contemporary Brazilian playwright after its award-winning premiere nearly two decades ago.
Gambini, a native of Brazil serving as director of a new production of the play for D.C.’s Spooky Action Theater, characterizes Agreste as “a Brazilian tragedy,” noting that “all of the elements of a good Greek tragedy are here: There is love. There are the gods. There is a tragic hero. There is catharsis. There is hubris.
“But essentially,” he continues, “this is a play about the celebration of love.”
Gambini describes the work as “essentially a love story — and also the story of the monstrosity of those who want to attack [that love]. I call this a play about the failures of allyship.” He expresses reluctance to say much more about the show, its plot, or its characters.
“Once you’ve seen the play, you’ll know why I couldn’t or shouldn’t talk about the characters. It’s not because of surprises. It’s just because it’s a journey. And whatever I reveal from the journey will take away from the journey itself.”
Gambini quotes from the official blurb for Agreste, which is named after an arid and poor region of northeastern Brazil where the story unfolds, focused on a fated love that gradually develops between Maria and Etevaldo — an improbable and mysterious pairing that, once uncovered, becomes too much for the close-minded denizens of their conservative community to bear or simply let be.
In addition to incorporating queer themes, Agreste is notable for its “queerness of structure,” says the director. The play doesn’t follow a traditional romantic narrative or typical character development.
Instead, four actors take turns serving as narrators, also switching interchangeably among characters, weaving the tale and reenacting events in a kind of random, round-robin style. “It allows the characters to exist almost as if in a bigger realm,” he says.
The Spooky Action production serves as the professional American debut of both Agreste and Moreno. “He’s very excited to have his play being done here,” Gambini says. “It’s a coincidence that there’s also a movie about this play being released right now in Brazil and on the festival circuit. So it feels very timely everywhere.”
Gambini, who moved to D.C. earlier this year to become the associate artistic director at Studio Theatre, has directed Agreste before, including an acclaimed production at the Yale School of Drama five years ago.
But not only does this production serve as his Washington debut, it also premieres a new English translation he developed for the occasion. “The play mixes very elaborate, sophisticated vocabulary, but also slang and specific vocabulary of the northeastern region of Brazil. They’re all mixed and intertwined,” he says. “I just wanted to have more control.”
“It has been a really magical experience,” Gambini says of working with Spooky Action. “This is the debut season of Beth Dinkova as artistic director, and she has been so fierce and courageous and relentless to just bring our vision to life and bring the best possible version of this play to audiences. I think Spooky Action has a very exciting future ahead of it with Beth.”
Agreste (Drylands) runs weekends through Nov. 19 at Spooky Action Theater in the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $37.50. Visit www.spookyaction.org.
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