nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
June 26, 2009
There is no formula that can define a "Latino" or "Latin American" aesthetic. There are always exceptions to the rule, whether attempting to pin down a common quality via language, race, or culture. In the end, one can only speak, perhaps too blandly, of the rich diversity of these elements; the real wonder comes from witnessing the imaginative products of the cross-pollination, the fruits of the unexpected encounters (old and new, native and imported) that mark the Latin American experience.
To the great benefit of New York audiences, TeatroStageFest, the annual Latino international theatre festival, now in its third year, shows a firm grasp of the many definitions the concept "Latino" encompasses. In addition to performances that showcase the experience of Latinos in the U.S., the festival offers the rare treat of new work from south of the border.
This year, a spotlight on South American theatre brought two companies from sister metropolises with thriving theatre scenes, Santiago and Buenos Aires. The program notes that both directors (Claudio Tolcachir from Argentina and Guillermo Calderón from Chile) develop their scripts in collaboration with their actors and follow a low-tech intimate approach to staging. Tolcachir's Third Wing (Tercer Cuerpo) retains a feeling of a long improv piece, with interactions between quirky characters serving as the driving force. The play takes place in a crumbling office in an obsolete department; we gradually learn the secrets each of the office workers within is hiding. While the dramatic heft of this device is needed to move the plot along, the real delight lies in the nuance and insight the company brings to the banal space of the workplace—in the end this keeps the work a comedy. Watching a busybody interfere in the lives of her co-workers, for example, is unexpected fun, as is a scene in which two of the characters help their colleague draft a speech for his mother's memorial service. The actors pause and emphasize words with impeccable timing, creating exchanges that manage to be both natural and funny.
The feeling is of a chamber orchestra, all of the actors in synch and each bringing a different tone, particularly in moments where conversations in different locations are juxtaposed within a single scene. A chamber orchestra seems to be an apt description for the production company, Timbre 4, as well, named after the buzzer audiences must ring to view performances in Tolcachir's own apartment in Buenos Aires. While performed in a considerably larger space here, the company transmits this intimate feeling through their subtle command of human interaction.
Guillermo Calderón's December (Diciembre) is more ambitious in its scope, but relies equally on the strength of the characters established. The play takes place on Christmas Eve, 2014, in a Chile at vicious war with Peru and Bolivia. Such themes as national character, violence, racism, and history are passionately approached through the point of view of three siblings. Twin sisters Trinidad and Paula, both pregnant, attempt to celebrate the holiday with their brother Jorge, on leave from the war. But the sisters are at each other's throats with opposing views on the war, with Trinidad secretly orchestrating Jorge's defection and Paula vowing to denounce traitors to the country. The work is defiantly theatrical, with all three actors at one point consecutively unleashing intense, dramatic monologues in a language verging on poetry. And yet, wonderfully, the effect is never heavy-handed. This is due in part to quick, dark humor, fearless, committed actors, and a holistic approach towards the characters written. Though speculative and absolutely political, the script does not lose sight of the human beings speaking. It's a play that could be said to be "about" any number of issues: Chile's history under Pinochet, the nature of war, our collective future with its nuclear menace and changing climate. But there is also a family history here, with its bonds of childhood, the mysteries of twinhood. They are siblings trying not to lose each other, self-aware people concerned with their own identity. Somehow, all of these layers are transmitted in the space of just over an hour, and it is a fantastic, dramatic wallop.
The packed space, and international, receptive crowd at these performances shows the hunger for contemporary Latin American work. I highly recommend marking your calendar to see what next summer's festival brings.