El pasado es un animal grotesco: Life in the round

[media-credit name=”Courtesy of Pilar Gamboa” align=”alignnone” width=”640″][/media-credit]

We have the theatre that we have because of all the people that feel a deep need to express themselves and their society on stage paying with their own time and money the theatre that they want to do. Because we are still in search, we do not have many certainties and also we are willing to make more mistakes. I think that the willingness to make mistakes is one of the most valuable attitudes in creative disciplines.

Of course, maybe that is not what theatre producers are looking for… —German D’Alessandro, Tierra Theatre

One of the unappreciated facts of Argentinian literature is its constant dialogue between the personal, political and social life of its characters. The specter of censura, for instance, weighs heavily upon all Argentine art because, unlike the United States where artists are a trivial decoration to social politics, Argentina takes its artists very seriously as critics. Politically inclined authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa had to write their critiques of their home countries from the outside, particularly as long as dictatorships ruled the roost. A deeply-committed humanist writer from Argentina learned either to be extremely subtle like Ernesto Sábato or extremely oblique like Jorge Luis Borges. Since the return of “democracy” to Argentina, the question for Argentine artists has always been, “What does democracy mean for us as people?”

The period of Argentinian history covered in Mariano Pensotti’s El pasado es un animal grotesco is the period shortly after Carlos Menem had virtually destroyed the country economically and new president Fernando de la Rúa began to finish off what Menem had started, forcing the entire country into a sort of economic lockdown that nearly destroyed the middle-class culminating with El Corralito.

That his quartet of characters are only dimly aware of their place in history is a typical Argentine strategem: Mr. Pensotti is nothing if not oblique. His answer to the Argentinian question seems to be that “democracy” currently means a form of soporific oblivion. These are people who have nowhere to go but go on regardless, completely without purpose, moving by an alternating current of inertia and whim away from their vacuous lives. Each has a different plan for escape. Pablo escapes into fantasy, Vicky into hedonism, Mario into art and Laura into travel. But of course life is hardly as neat and simple as all that and it is inevitable that each will wind up back at the beginning, just as surely as the circular stage beneath them revolves back to its beginning.

The structure for the narrative is quite bold. Mr. Pensotti says that he wished to evoke the sense of the 19th Century novel. He most certainly has. The play takes on the feeling of Balzac or Proust gone to Latin America, operating in that realm that García Márquez elegantly referred to as “the area between nostalgia and reality.” The brilliant staging of the story leaves subtle clues about the mercurial nature of such nostalgia/reality. The assemblage of boxes, for instance, with the dates of the years written on them piles up for about seven years and then stops without warning. The final years accumulate nothing not because the characters no longer remember but because they no longer experience their present for what it is, and because their lives cannot yet be filed so neatly and accurately. With simple strokes like this Mr. Pensotti casts an oblique glance at what, how, why people remember what they think they remember.

The oblivion with which they treat their individual lives is symptomatic also of how their generation treats its social environment. One scene in particular makes this case. The character of Laura (the marvelous Maria Ines Sancerni) is about to commit suicide because nothing good will ever happen to her and existential despair is inescapable. At that very same moment (in a touch of coincidence evocative of “magic realism”) her lover Hassan is committing suicide in Palestine not for reasons of personal desperation but rather for reasons of political salvation and a cause. The sharp relief between the situations indicts not only Laura’s superficiality but the superficiality of all who think they are somehow remote from the workings of the world.

The play ends with the entire spinning stage growing empty except for the detritus of the characters’ lives as Of Montreal’s song “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” blares its lyrics:

Performance breakdown and I don’t want to hear it
I’m just not available
Things could be different but they’re not
Things could be different but they’re not

But the cruelty’s so predictable
It makes you sad on the stage—

Cut to black. A harsh ending indeed.

Actress Pilar Gamboa who plays Vicky says, “La obra es también el posible retrato de una generación defectuosa.” It is indeed a portrait of a lost generation, a generation without history, without experience, condemned by its own nostalgia and its own inability not to see reality but to choose the proper fiction by which to live. It is a portrait of life in the round because it is a portrait of a circular life, not at all unlike the circle of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

As Argentine theater director German D’Alessandro says, “We are still in search of what is really our tradition in theatre and culture generally speaking.” This is also, however, a great strength, as Mr. D’Alessandro notes: “Because we are not part of any important tradition we can risk more than other countries.” This risk is a beautiful thing that allows for many beautiful plays like El pasado es un animal grotesco. Not tied to any notion of what “theater” or “narrative” might be, Mr. Pensotti indulges in the freedom to choose from the oblique narrative style of Raul Ruíz films and the hyperrealist literature of Machado de Assis. The conservative theater of Seattle might learn something here. Seattle, too, lacks an important tradition of theater just as Argentina does. The possibility for risking more than other cities just as Argentina risks more than other countries lies on the ground like a gauntlet thrown down, waiting to be picked up—and perhaps even used to write a new future.

Through Feb 12 // On the Boards, 100 W Roy St // Tickets $25 available through On the Boards

Filed under Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net