En Un Sol Amarillo
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
January 19, 2007
In May 1998, a catastrophic earthquake struck Bolivia, destroying houses, injuring hundreds of people, and killing a thankfully much smaller number of people in three cities and several agrarian communities. As with any widely reported natural disaster these days, international aid began to pour in immediately—money, building materials, generators, medicine. And, as with most widely reported natural disasters, with the flow of money and supplies came the accusations of corruption and inefficiency, of failure to help the needy, and of making political capital out of the destruction of people's livelihoods, homes, and lives. Traveling among the communities most affected, the members of the Bolivian theatre group Teatro de los Andes collected testimonies from residents, about their experiences both inside the tiny span of time of the earthquake and in the long days, months, and years after, during which they struggled to rebuild their communities and were often betrayed by those who claimed to help.
To an American audience—or at least to this American audience member—the story inevitably evoked Hurricane Katrina, in a way that both helped and hurt the play. The individual narratives gained additional resonance, I think, by the connection. But the scale of the world disasters, natural and manmade, that have occurred between the Bolivian earthquake and now—Katrina, the South Asian tsunami, the ongoing devastation of the war in Iraq—can't help but dwarf the story told in En un Sol Amarillo. The play remains a dramatically effective and moving testimony to the lives and struggles of the people whose stories are commemorated here, and an impassioned plea to Bolivians to fight for a more legitimately democratic and less corrupt form of government. But as an outsider who cannot effect change in the Bolivian government, I sadly do not even feel surprised or enlightened by the picture of governmental corruption, governmental indifference, and governmental incompetence presented here.
En un Sol Amarillo takes us on an impressionistic journey through the earthquake and post-earthquake world—snippets of recollections of individual survivors mixed with elegiac movement sections, somber music, straightforward storytelling, and broad satire about the governmental and media interventions—set in a stark, dimly (perhaps a little too dimly) lit, and dust-covered landscape filled with dangling pieces of furniture and debris.
One of the most effective aspects of the play, in fact, is the dust—dust as a central prop and emblem of what happens during an earthquake, of the way all crumbles to rubble, to dust, to dust that is everywhere and inescapable. Dust is the play's most effective and striking prop—used to draw a stick figure of a dead child on a wall, which then crumbles away; dust sprinkled on a prone actor as he recalls his burial alive, dust clouds erupting from a drum as it is beaten; pools and swirls of dust on the stage floor as the play draws to a close.
The piece is collectively created by the ensemble of four actors (Lucas Achirico, Daniel Aguirre, Gonzalo Callejas, and Alice Guimaraes) and their director, Cesar Brie. The visual images they've constructed are striking throughout—the troupe of emigres marching, each with representative belongings; a terrified figure crouched beneath a wildly swinging table dangling from a rope.
Of course, one reason the visuals stick with me, more than the language, is that the play is performed in Spanish with English supertitles. I found the supertitles problematic—although my Spanish isn't good enough to have allowed me to ignore them, it's just good enough for me to feel frustrated with the sloppiness of the translation. Not only did it strip out all the poetry and interesting rhythmic qualities in the writing (possibly unavoidable), but it was sometimes incomplete and at others not entirely accurate. It's disappointing to feel the language blunted in a play standing in tribute to the stories of real people, in a play calling for real political change.