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Theatre in Review: Villa (The Play Company at The Wild Project)

Crystal Finn, Harmony Stempel, Vivia Font. Photo: Pavel Antonov.

There are dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of plays about history's worst episodes; plays about the Holocaust alone would fill several bookshelves. There are significantly fewer plays, I think, about the challenge of surviving such events: When one's life is torn apart by mankind's most atrocious deeds -- torture, genocide, mass murder -- how does one fit them into one's personal history? Must they become the defining events of one's life? Is there a way to contextualize them without trivializing them? Most urgent of all, can one find a way to move on without fatally numbing one's soul? These devilish questions plague the three heroines of Guillermo Calderón's play, who find themselves forced to decide the fate of a building where unspeakable events once took place.

That would be Villa Grimaldi, a country house in Chile where some of the most egregious acts of torture took place under the nightmare rule of Augusto Pinochet. As the play begins, those days are long gone; democracy has been restored and Michelle Bachelet is president. A board of survivors from those terrible years has been formed to decide what to do with the villa, but their meeting has collapsed into a chaos of recriminations and physical assaults. To break this impasse, a committee of three women has been formed to make a decision that the others will accept. None of the ladies is happy to be involved, nor do they grasp why they have been chosen. (Although the program lists them as Macarena, Carla, and Francisca, they address each other as "Alejandra," presumably a tactic keep their identities under wraps. Indeed, they come together in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and backbiting. It doesn't help that the initial tally results in one vote for Option A (rebuild the villa as the house of horrors it was under Pinochet), one vote for Option B (build a museum) -- and a spoiled vote that none of them own up to.

It is decided that arguments will be made for each option, and what follows is a series of torrential monologues laying out the rationale for each plan -- which even its presenter won't endorse -- interspersed with hushed caucuses, filled with gossip and manipulation, whenever one of the ladies is out of the room. Such anguished, hostile behavior is not a comment on their characters; instead, it speaks volumes about the world of repression and betrayal in which they came of age. In the days of their youth, to hold the wrong opinion publicly was to risk ending up in a hellhole like Villa Grimaldi.

The arguments, when made, are filled with searing detail -- yet neither option feels remotely satisfactory. Arguing for the "house of horrors" approach, Carla says: "If I had money I'd rebuild everything, and with every single irrelevant detail. Not just the actual architecture of the bucolic country house itself, but also the swimming pool of water, too; the green trees, the garden of roses, the silence, the terrible smell, the screams, the chains, the engines in the night, all the artistic art production. And I'd create a fake oldness, I'd paint the walls with muddy water, with another palette of colors. Tones like sepia. And I'd buy all the paraphernalia. I'd buy a metal bed, I'd buy cables and plugs, I'd buy uniforms, I'd buy the smell of poop. To create a sort of realist Disneyland reality." Even in the extreme pursuit of verisimilitude, such an approach would surely trivialize the horrific suffering that unfolded there.

The plan for the "art" museum is more like a tony, tasteful historical archive; one of the features envisioned is a room full of Mac computers, where, Francisca says, visitors can "see lists of all of the people who were brought to the villa and were killed. And you can click on the name and everything about that person appears. Photos of her as a kid, her family, who her boyfriend was, whether she liked to eat abalones...And if you double-click on 'Villa,' click-click, a description comes up of everything that really happened to her in the villa. Click. Who she hugged. Click. Who she spoke to. Click. Who she helped." She also imagines an icon called "The Road Not Taken:" "And here you see what family and friends think would have happened if nothing had happened. If she'd never been in the villa. So here you see, with multimedia of course, that this man would have been a cyclist. Or a marathonist. Click-click. Look. This girl would have been a concertist. And she would have braided her hair. Click-click. Look: This man would have been an electrician. Click-click. Look: This girl would have read the I Ching on the beach." The top floor of the museum will feature a minimalist installation featuring a German shepherd surrounded by fencing; this would be an allusion to all the female prisoners who were raped by dogs. Thus, a totally different approach ends up at the same destination, turning the villa into an "experience" to be enjoyed by tourists who feel edified by the opportunity of sampling such grim details.

The truth is, neither option is palatable, because the real problem -- for them and their fellow citizens -- is learning to live, and move forward, while bearing the burden of an unspeakable historical memory. Their relations are poisoned because they haven't found a way of exorcising the evil that still corrodes their souls. It is only when the women discover the shared experience that links them (it begins with one's admission that "I was raped, indirectly") that a sense of catharsis is achieved and the real work begins.

Calderón, who is best known in this country for his screenplays for The Club and Neruda, both directed by Pablo Larraín, has constructed an elegant box in which to trap his characters, allowing us to watch them wrestle with history and each other. (The translation, by William Gregory, is eminently speakable.) The script is an exceptionally eloquent statement about the ripple effects of dictatorship, how such ghastly abuses of power reverberate long after they have ended. The author, who also directed, has elicited three furious, yet tightly contained, performances from Crystal Finn, Vivia Font, and Harmony Stempel, each of them engaging in debate as if their lives depended on it -- which is probably what their characters at heart feel. All three actresses play off each other so seamlessly that they essentially constitute a single performance -- taut, probing, and riddled with barely suppressed anguish.

The production benefits from a simple, yet powerful, production design (scenery, costumes, and lighting) by Maria Fernanda Videla Urra, which places at stage center a table bearing a model of Villa Grimaldi, which, at one point, glows eerily, rather like the house in Edward Albee's Tiny Alice. The upstage wall is covered with graffiti and a depiction of three fists raised in protest. A late-in-the-evening light cue focused on the wall's peeling paint gives it a dimensionality it lacked in the earlier scenes. You wouldn't expect amplfication in a theatre as tiny as the Wild Project, but the cast members are fitted out with boom mics, used by the sound designer, Mark Van Hare, when the characters retreat upstage or into corners for whispered conversations.

Scenery, lighting, and sound come together for a final coup de théâtre that I shouldn't describe; I will add that it happens after the women seemingly have found a harmonious solution, and it suggests that making peace with the past will never be easily achieved. In Villa, history is a nightmare -- and waking up from it does nothing to make it go away. -- David Barbour

(16 March 2017)

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