That Germán Jaramillo would play the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges in John Guare’s Nantucket Sleigh Ride had the air of fate about it. Jaramillo, with whom I spoke recently before a matinee, grew up in Colombia not Argentina. But his roots in Borges, who hovers above Guare’s play both thematically and, because of the multi-level set, sometimes literally, run deep.
It was while he was a university student in economics, in Bogotá, that Jaramillo first encountered Borges’ work. “I was reading something by Julio Cortázar – Borges had published one of Cortázar’s stories and Cortázar wrote some very kind words about Borges. I got a copy of Borges’ Obra Poetica” -- the ‘Poetic Work’ – “which begins with poems published in 1923. For me, it was the discovery of a new world. From that point, I’ve always had books by Borges, and I’ve often traveled with them. Borges has been a guide to my life as a literary person.”
Many years later, after moving to New York, Jaramillo starred in a play called Blind Date, produced by the Repertorio Español, a company that has helped New York City maintain a high level of theater in the Spanish language and to which Jaramillo will return the weekend after Nantucket closes to do a reprise of a play based on Garcia Márquez’s novella No One Writes to the Colonel. “In Blind Date,” Jaramillo recounted, “I played a blind writer from Argentina. This was not really Borges. But I consider that I did my first approach to the character in the Guare play through the character I portrayed in Blind Date.”
How did all this background inform Jaramillo’s approach to Guare’s Borges? “I have approached my work here,” Jaramillo said, “as more than an act of interpretation. It has been an act of possession. Every night, I wait for Borges to come to this theater and take possession of our performance.”
Jaramillo had no formal drama-school training. “In 1976,” he said, “I had the choice of two things: either go to an international theater festival in Caracas, Venezuela, or finish my exams in economics. Of course, I went to the festival, which set my professional direction.” (He finished his economics degree a few years later.)
In the 1970s, Jaramillo helped found a theater company that did plays all around the Colombia, at places deep in the community: schools, hospitals, halls in small towns. Years later, this experience led to Jaramillo founding the now-Bronx-based ID Studio Theater, which is committed to the cultural enrichment of immigrant communities through the performing arts.
Although Jaramillo has been primarily a theater actor, in 1999 he starred in a movie made by the award-winning French director Barbet Schroeder. It was called Our Lady of the Assassins, and Jaramillo played a Colombian author returning to his hometown of Medellín after a 30-year absence. The New York Times praised the movie and Jaramillo’s performance and the actor, who had come to NYC in 1999 to spend a year or two with his wife, a physician doing a Ph.D. at Columbia, found many metaphorical doors opening here.
Literal doors open and close frequently on the set of Nantucket Sleigh Ride, and sometimes they reveal Jaramillo’s Borges. Jaramillo said: “When I first read the piece I thought it was very Borgesian, and later I told that to John Guare. I have been so fortunate to be part of this experience. On opening night, John Guare gave me a beautiful book, The Selected Poems of Borges. The poems are in both Spanish and English.”
Although Borges was thoroughly Argentinean, Jaramillo said that in Guare’s play Borges “sometimes feels like someone from another planet, around whom everyone revolves thematically. Guare’s Borges doesn’t speak like the other characters: they tend to speak colloquially, while he speaks in sentences. English isn’t my first language, so I’ve had to work to make sure those sentences are uttered precisely. It was a challenge but also enjoyable.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com