Over the course of her solo show about an Argentinian who moves as a child to New York City, Florencia Iriondo hands out little round chipas, an Argentine cheese bread (savory), and little square chocotorta, an Argentine chocolate cake (sweet.) But her greatest gift to the audience in “South” is her voice. That voice knocked me out in her very first song “Vengo del Sur” (I Come from the South): The tone, tinged with the sounds of South America, reminded me of classic female folk singers, especially a gloriously tuneful ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh that punctuates the lyrics (which are in a mix of Spanish and English.) The way she at times fast-talked the lyrics toward a catch in her throat reminded me specifically of Tracy Chapman.
“Vengo del Sur” is probably my favorite of the 18 songs in the 90-minute show, all backed by two masterful musicians, acoustical guitarist Federico Diaz (who co-wrote the songs with Iriondo and Luis D’Elias), and cellist Agustin Uriburu.
The delicious home-baked goods and the delightful homegrown songs give a homey feel to the immigrant story Iriondo is telling at the cabaret-style Huron Club downstairs at SoHo Playhouse. But there are two things to know about that story to best appreciate “South.” The songs drive the story, not the other way around. And Iriondo is not telling her own story, but that of a fictional character.
Sure, there are similarities between the character and the performer (so much so that many in the audience may mistake “South” for a memoir.) Both are from Argentina. But Iriondo is from Buenes Aires, which she left in 2006 to travel the world, arriving in New York in 2013; she started working on this show a year later! Chica (the name in the script, although never mentioned on stage) is from “the southernmost place you could possibly imagine,” she tells us at the start. “No, not Key West. Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. It’s as close as a city can get to Antarctica. Also known as ‘La Tierra del Fin del Mundo’ or ‘The End of the World.’”
It’s the only world Chica knows until 1992, when we first meet her, aged 10. Her father has lost his job, and her mother, who ran a local art gallery, has been able to get a job as a curator in an art gallery far, far away — in what Chica has been told “is the brightest, kindest, cleanest place up North” – New York City (which gets a laugh.) Her first reaction when she arrives: “What’s that smell? Where are the mountains?”
What we learn about the new life for Chica and her family is episodic and sketchy, largely told in song that emphasizes feeling over narrative detail.
Her mother is fired from the New York gallery after getting into a fight with the owner, and she needs to get a work visa – which leads to the song, sung by Chica’s mother, “10 Simple Steps” to a visa, which is instructive if not among the most memorable (Step 1: Find a sponsor. Step 10: Pray.)
Her mother gives birth to a girl, which disappoints Chica, since she had expected a brother, but the baby is too adorable to resist, which leads to a funny/lovely lullaby (I try pulling away/ but I can’t breakaway)
In “Idea of You,” her mother sings a first verse to her father,
In another life
en otra vida
I see your face
I wake you up in bed
but by the last verse:
In another life
It’s not another life
let go of my hand
I free the idea of you…
…they have gotten a divorce
The lively song “Que Se Yo” is a love letter to Argentina
If you welcome with a kiss
only one on the cheek, Argentina
you hug them even though
you’ve never met before, Argentina
It’s introduced by the information that her sister is upset because people don’t think she should call herself Argentinian, since she was born in the United States. Her sister, we’re told, is now a senior in high school, which means the story has skipped through two decades.
“South” ends with Chica (presumably in the current day) still in New York, singing the song that began the show, “Vengo del Sur,” this time entirely in Spanish.
She comes from the South, and still sees it as home, as does Florencia Iriondo, judging from the distinctive Argentine clothing and elegant Argentine jewelry she wears, and the soft rounded vowels of her accent. But, as Chica – and Florencia – make clear, home is as much who you are as where you are: “…home lies somewhere between the roots underneath me and the seeds that I plant.”
SoHo Playhouse through November 15
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Book, Lyrics, Music written and performed by Florencia Iriondo, music by Federico Diaz and Luis D’Elias. Band: Federico Diaz (MD & guitars) Agustin Uriburu (cello & guitar).
Directed and designed by Feliciano Tencos-Garcia and Rebecca Satzberg, Lighting and sound by Kate Parker-Lentz