When Mexico City theater director Claudio Valdés Kuri visited Japan in 1997, he discovered an art form that he had never known existed. There he saw a performance by one of the few Benshi performers in the world. Benshi is the Japanese tradition of silent film interpretation in which live performers act out the voices and emotions of characters onscreen, and often sing or add narrative commentary.
The young director immediately thought of El Automovil Gris, a classic work of Mexican silent cinema, and wanted to import the Benshi style as a way to revive interest in the film. Part documentary, part proto-gangster action flick, it tells the story of the Grey Automobile Gang, a famously nefarious pack of mobsters that terrorized Mexico City in the early 20th century. The film's director, Enrique Rosas, filmed the gang's actual execution in 1915, then proceeded to make a film of their escapades. Actors played the gang members--but the real victims of their crimes played themselves, as did the detective in the case who was also a co-writer. The film premiered in 1919 and was immensely popular in Mexico. It is one of only five feature-length Mexican silent films that has survived.
Trained in acting and documentary film making, Valdés Kuri says he has always been interested in productions that blur genres and fuse different kinds of media into original performances. He says he intended for this production to "honor the Mexican silent film tradition," which is all but lost, "and also the Benshis who were great performers." American audiences will see a very different show from the one that premiered in Mexico. The company decided to create a production specifically for English-speaking audiences in order to make it as accessible as possible. "That's our main challenge," says Valdés Kuri. "The theater suffers something different from other arts because the presenters are often afraid of presenting plays of texts that they are afraid people won't understand." For about a year, the company has worked on the translation and "contextualization" of the film, hoping to capture the original spirit of the film with all its Mexico City slang. They've also added local actor and spoken word artist Thomasi McDonald to the cast. "He will be the first American Benshi," the director says with a smile.
As the film plays, actors will stand at the side of the stage wearing all black-and-white costumes and makeup, and a piano player will improvise in the style that was popular in Mexico City at the time of the film's release. Based on the video I saw, the result promises to be visually striking performance, strange and at times funny.
Wednesday, Feb. 19, 8 p.m. Griffith Film Theater, Duke Campus, Durham. 684-4444. $15, $10 students. Thursday, Feb. 20, 8 p.m. (pre-show talk at 6:45 p.m. in Witherspoon). Witherspoon Campus Cinema, N.C. State Campus, Raleigh. 515-1100. $15, $12 with series discount, $9 students. Saturday, Feb. 22, 8 p.m. N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh. 715-5923. $15, $12 for museum members.