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Though 70 percent of the dialogue in ¡Cantinflas! is spoken in high-flying, fast-talking, double-entendre-filled Spanish, you don't have to be bilingual to enjoy the play's high jinks, which will run for one more hysterical weekend at the Alley Theatre. Along with its Marx Brothers-style puns and Spanish jokes, ¡Cantinflas! features some of the best physical comedy to appear in a Houston theater in years -- which is fitting. After all, the play's about Cantinflas, the Mexican star that Charlie Chaplin called "the greatest comedian who ever lived."
Anyone raised on Latino movies knows Cantinflas. He appeared in more than 50 films during five decades. Created by the Mexican actor Mario Moreno Reyes in the 1930s, the character Cantinflas was a cultural icon and a consummate funnyman. He made people laugh until their bellies ached, doing what he said any great comic should do: making his audience think. The handsome comedian gently poked at the sensitive issues of class and political corruption while wiggling and dancing and skipping across his world in big shoes, patched britches and a little hat.
It's no wonder modern-day actor/writer/comedian Herbert Siguenza would want to pay tribute to Cantinflas. Siguenza, who's best known for his comedy work with the San Francisco-based Latino group Culture Clash, started working on a script about Cantinflas in 2001. Even though this type of comedy is different from his usual style, Siguenza's clearly proud of the show that had the opening-night audience on its feet cheering. "After doing 19 years of Culture Clash, which is really urban-type Chicano comedy, edgy, satirical, I just felt like I was ready to go back to the basics, the blues sort of," he says. "And the basics is Cantinflas. He's the archetype comedian for Latinos. But I never felt like I had the skills to portray him. Ten years ago I wasn't ready."
Siguenza's clearly ready now. In addition to having written the show's clever script, he plays the title character. The setup is wonderfully elegant in its simplicity: An English-speaking American reporter interviews the comedian, who's approaching the end of his life, at his Mexican mansion. Cantinflas is happy to oblige and proceeds to tell all. Both silly and complex, his memories are filled with wacky humor that Siguenza brings to limber life.
The English interview gives way to film scenes, which are reenacted in a wonderfully appropriate circus-like ring, thanks to Alexander V. Nichols's whimsical set design. The scenes spill out in fast-tongued Spanish that even some bilingual audience members had trouble following.
While researching the life of Cantinflas, Siguenza watched 40 of the legend's films. He even bought a stranger's entire Cantinflas collection off eBay. Then he began selecting favorite scenes from films such as El Profe and El Bolero de Raquel, which contains, according to Siguenza, "one of the funniest dances on film."
The fusion of interview and film scenes pulls the great performer's comedy into the new millennium with stunning clarity. Directed with firecracker wit and energy by Max Ferra, Siguenza and his cast (including the gorgeous Houstonian Pablo Bracho and actress VIVIS) are so much fun to watch, it hardly matters whether you speak Spanish. The comedy of ¡Cantinflas! is universal.