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With a Mexican flavor, Fresno State production of ‘The Agony of Ecstasy’ explores gender roles and sexuality

The Mexican playwright Sabina Berman wrote “The Agony of Ecstasy” in the 1980s, but many of her play’s themes — including bisexuality, transvestism and androgyny — seem tailor-made for 2021.

Yet these themes are also filtered through a specific cultural lens. Catholicism looms heavily in any discussion of Mexican identity, and “The Agony of Ecstasy” (a streaming production that opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 7, on an “appointment TV” basis, and continues through Saturday, May 15) reflects that impact. Fresno State director Gina Sandí-Díaz notes that the play has been produced to acclaim in Spanish, but the English translation (by Adam Versenyi, who will be holding a talkback with audiences on Sunday, May 9) is little-known in the United States, at least as a full production.

Pictured above: In ‘The Mustache,’ one of four short plays, Krishan Joshi and Alexis Gonzalez debate the intricacies of facial hair in ‘The Agony of Ecstasy.’ Photo: Fresno State

The evening consists of four “playlets,” each with two characters. It was filmed in the Woods Theatre under social-distancing protocols.

I caught up with Sandí-Díaz to ask about this provocative production.

Q: Can you talk about the title? It’s interesting to me because in English it appears to be a play (no pun intended) on the phrase “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” That title (from a 1961 biographical novel of Michelangelo and the subsequent 1965 film adaptation starring Charlton Heston) is often associated with creative geniuses who are perceived to have suffered for their art. (Along with Michelangelo, the title has also been used in books about Steve Jobs and Phil Spector.) Is there a connection that can be drawn from that meaning to that of the title of Sabina Berman’s play — or is all this an unintended translation thing, and the whole point is moot when talking about the title in the original Spanish?

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A: I am not familiar with the phrase you mention. In Spanish, the title is “El Suplicio del Placer.” The word suplicio (which Versenyi translates as “agony”) literally means “moral suffering.” And then there’s the fact that Mexico is one of the most Catholic countries in the world, which makes me think Berman is suggesting people’s painful relationship with pleasure stems from the Catholic Church’s oppressive views on pleasure and sexuality.

Q: You picked this title knowing you’d have to present it in a filmed, socially distanced format, right? What qualities of the play were you looking for to succeed in this format?

A: Yes, that’s correct.This year picking a show was particularly difficult. I was looking for topics that would interest my students, and since we had to adapt to COVID-19 protocols and to filming our productions, I was focused on episodic structures with no more than two characters per scene and with few design requirements. This was no easy task. Since I am from Costa Rica and am familiar with the Spanish-speaking canon, I thought Paloma Pedrero’s “Noches de Amor Efimero,” would be a great fit, but I could not find an English translation. However, in searching for Pedrero’s play, I found Adam Versenyi’s translation of “The Agony of Ecstasy” and it was the perfect fit.


Related story: Review: Fresno State’s thoughtful ‘Agony of Ecstasy’ finds a metaphor in a mustache, then chomps down on gender roles and more

Q: How did you incorporate social distancing into the blocking and filming? Did you have to work around any moments when characters would obviously touch?

A: Yes, great question. We had to work around many moments where actors were supposed to touch. “The Love Nest,” which is the second playlet in the series, was particularly hard to stage because it calls for intimate moments; but it ended up working just fine.

Q: You took on the role of video director (along with stage director) for this production, which is different from the other virtual Fresno State productions this season. Did that decision put you out of your comfort zone? Why did you take that on? What was the experience like?

A: Yes, I did. And it did force me out of my comfort zone, A LOT!

But, I had great collaborators by my side that helped me in “moments of crisis” and I am very pleased with the videography. I’ve also had a few meaningful experiences with film, both as a director and actor that helped me conceive and follow through with the process.

Q: Can you tell us about the performance history of the play in English? (I couldn’t find much about it online.) How about in Spanish?

A: The play was very well received in Mexico City where the Teatro Rodolfo Usigli produced it in 1985, 1990 and 1992. In the US, it has received readings at multiple colleges. I am not sure if it has been fully produced before.

Q: The play was written more than 30 years ago. Berman addresses contemporary societal ideas and misconceptions about bisexuality, transvestism, and androgyny. Do you think she was ahead of her time?

A: Yes, she was. She was also bold enough to discuss these issues on a stage in quite the conservative Catholic country.

Sabina Berman is a feminist. In this piece, she plays with Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble,” successfully exposing the ways in which Catholicism and authoritarian regimes shaped Mexican society. The first three playlets focus on the performativity of gender in heteronormative relationships. All three emphasize toxic and dysfunctional relationships. In the first playlet, for example, the characters are not comfortable being their true selves, so they use a mustache to “perform” the gender of their choice in public. And it’s no coincidence that the mustache is the item in dispute, because in Mexico, the mustache is a symbol of patriarchal power. It’s the footprint of Mexican machismo.

Emily King, left, and Joshua Clark in a scene from “Teeth,” one of the playlets in the Fresno State production of ‘The Agony of Ecstasy.’

Q: Perhaps you could go into a little bit of detail about one of the short plays (your choice). How do you think its themes relate to contemporary times?

A: Even though she wrote these playlets a long time ago, I think they are all very relevant. It is 2021 and women still don’t enjoy full equality to men, and the LGBTQ+ community is still fighting bigotry and invisibility in the eyes of the law.

In going to share a bit of the fourth playlet, “Teeth,” because it is quite different from the previous three. This one is absurdist and grim. Here, the mouth of a client is tortured by a dentist and nurse who are trying to kill her pain. There are several layers of meaning in this piece. The treatment the mouth receives has a striking resemblance to the torture chambers for political prisoners used throughout Latin America during dictatorships. But the fact that the client is a woman also suggests the common dismissal of female pain in the medical world and the abusive medical practices historically done to women’s bodies.

Q: You are offering a talkback with the translator, Adam Versenyí. Can you give us a preview of that discussion?

A: Sure. Adam Versenyi is the chair of Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the dramaturg for PlayMakers Repertory Company. He is also the founder and editor of The Mercurian: A Theatrical Translation Review.

The talkback will focus on Sabina Berman’s work and its reception in Mexico and abroad. We are also going to talk about the fascinating world of play translation. Also, the cast will be joining us and will be sharing their experience working on this piece.


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Q: You’re offering this production just as a conservative transgender former Olympic athlete-slash-reality-TV star announces she is running in an election to recall the governor of California. What do you think Berman would say about that? Could she add that story to this collection of plays?

A: Ohhh, tricky question! I think Jenner makes a great case study for Berman.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: Yes. Thank you, Donald, for featuring me, and thank you, reader, for taking the time to read this interview.

Please join us for a fun evening of theater with our talented students!


Show info

The Agony of Ecstasy, a Fresno State streaming production. Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 7. Continues through Saturday, May 15. The May 7-8 and May 11-15 performances stream at 7:30 p.m. PST and May 9 performance streams at 2 p.m. Tickets are is $15 general and $10 students; available at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/theatrearts. A talkback with translator Adam Versenyí will take place at 3:30pm on Sunday, May 9th. Audience members can register for the talkback by visiting bit.ly/AgonyTalkBack.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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