Arts & Entertainment

Cuba’s Teatro Marti, an example of the fight against time and abandonment

Havana, Feb 2 (EFE).- Renowned artists from Cuba and around the world have breathed splendor into Havana’s emblematic Marti Theater (Teatro Marti), which since 1884 has struggled against the passage of time, abandonment and now the coronavirus pandemic to continue as a key element of Havana nightlife.

Located on central Dragones Street in Old Havana, very close to the Capitol, the Marti opened its doors in the late 19th century with the name of its first owner, Spaniard Ricardo Irijoa, the foremost expert on the theater, Isachi Durruthy, told EFE.

Built in the neoclassical style on three levels and with a seating capacity of 2,500, the theater continues with its programming ranging from cultural and circus events to political debates.

The historian commented that the theater has not limited its offerings and activities to the cultural realm, with the Constitutional Assembly meeting here in 1901, after the Cuban War of Independence in 1895 and the intervention of the United States three years later, which accelerated Spain’s defeat.

Rebaptized at that time the Marti Theater, in honor of Cuban National Hero Jose Marti, the site became a “reference point” on the Havana evening scene with a playbill that included the unequaled Rita Montaner and Cuban comedy “bufo theater” characters like “el Negrito,” “el Gallego” – an allusion to Spaniards – and “la Mulata.”

In 1931, the Marti offered an exquisite season of local talent with orchestra directors Gonzalo Roig and Rodrigo Prats, who helped consolidate the Cuban lyric art scene.

Durruthy emphasized that during those “golden years” of the Marti, the venue staged works representative of the Cuban entertainment scene like “Rosa la China” by Ernesto Lecuona, “Soledad,” “Amalia Batista” and “Maria Belen Chaco” by Prats, and “Cecilia Valdes” by Roig.

Historical essays published by the current Havana Historian’s Office say that the theater also continued to be an important center for political events.

In 1955, for example, it welcomed the Orthodox Assembly that gathered together the young people who read the first manifesto of the July 26 Movement sent from exile by then-attorney Fidel Castro, who a few years later headed the Cuban Revolution and then governed the country for almost five decades.

The Marti Theater was confiscated by the new government in 1959, upon the triumph of the Revolution, and was open until 1965, when it ceased its programming so that several months’ worth of repairs could be made to the building.

However, that was not enough to stave off further damage and due to the lack of attention, the humidity, erosion and deterioration, it definitively closed its doors in 1974, when it was part of the Havana Provincial Culture Directorate, Durruthy said.

The passage of time worked against the iconic “colosseum of 100 doors,” as Cuban poet Jose Fornaris called it, and significant damage to the structure resulted.

For almost 40 years, the theater remained closed until Havana historian Eusebio Leal (1942-2020), architect Nancy Gonzalez and a group of restoration experts undertook the complex task of saving the venue, which was “open to the sky” by that time, as Leal said.

In the late 1980s, the Historian’s Office began gathering together the information needed to begin restoring the building amid the country’s economic crisis.

It wasn’t until Feb. 24, 2014, that the complicated work – pushed forward mainly by Leal – was completed, with the historian always lobbying for the structure’s “historical and cultural weight,” Durruthy said.

After its reopening, the theater’s biggest challenge was offering a select program that combined the history of the emblematic venue and the new artistic currents sweeping the country, albeit without “losing its stamp,” she added.

The full restaging of classics like “Cecilia Valdes,” “Maria la O,” the anthologies of Cuban zarzuela, the lyric concerts and the seasons of musical theater returned with a new touch.

Thus, the Marti Theater once again became the site of prestigious concert music festivals like “Les Voix Humaines” by virtuoso Cuban composer Leo Brouwer and other shows that evoked the nostalgia for the great artists whose work has been performed there.

Six years after its fully restored reopening, the Marti had to face new difficulties, this time due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced it to close its doors to the public once again.

“The pandemic was a heavy blow for those of us working in the theater and we have a rhythm of life that depends on all that’s happening on the stage,” she said.

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