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Theater review: Guillermo Calderón's Villa explores political crimes and memorials

Theater review: Guillermo Calderón's Villa explores political crimes and memorials
Photograph: Pavel Antonov

★★★★


The hammer blow of Guillermo Calderón's Villa doesn't fall at once; it doesn't even fall at the same time for all audience members. It fell for me hours after the show was over, when admiration for the piece veered abruptly into blank horror. There was a physical, jarring sensation to it—like missing my step off a curb.

Calderón is a Chilean dramatist-director whose work (most recently Escuela) has been a consistent highlight of the Under the Radar festival. He's now based out of New York, and Villa (like Neva a few years ago) has been filtered through a local cast. A masterful realist with a talent for scene selection, Calderón has an effortless way of devising a concrete conversation (a family reunites, actors rehearse, a committee meets) that bleeds red with political and metaphysical implications. He has also figured out a trick of centripetal structure: We aren't merely convinced there's a universe beyond the play; the offstage world actually feels more real and more dense than what's happening in front of us.

A typical Calderón play emphasizes that any room is a bubble—a box of momentary light surrounded by inrushing dark. Villa is the same. This time the room is where a committee has gathered: Three women, all called Alejandra, have been selected to make a decision about a proposed memorial. They gather around a little model of the titular villa, a government torture site that some survivors want to reconstruct. As one Alejandra (Vivia Font) argues, if visitors can walk through its halls, they may come to understand the state- and CIA-sanctioned hell that took place there. But is a hyperreal imitation the right choice? Should the site—as Harmony Stempel's Alejandra claims—be turned into a museum instead? The remaining Alejandra (Crystal Finn) dithers. The three take blind votes, but one ballot keeps turning up spoiled. Someone is refusing to settle on one option or the other. The ruined ballot says, each time, “Marichiweu!”—the indigenous Mapuche phrase meaning “We shall triumph tenfold.” But they don't triumph. They turn on each other; they bicker.

Villa, produced by the Play Company, is three things simultaneously: a photorealistic comedy about decision by committee, a bolder No Exit and an anguished scream. In the first case, the three women under Calderón's direction are all marvelous naturalistic performers; they find comic grace notes even in tiny things. Second, the piece does feel like arch-absurdism, full of the spirit of Sartre and Vían and Ionesco. Was that ruined ballot really written by a human hand? Yet, we realize gradually, each accumulating detail comes from life. The unnamed villa of the play is actually Villa Grimaldi, one of Pinochet's most appalling detention centers. All the worst we've heard here is true: Chilean soldiers really did rape women with dogs. People really were tied to girders and thrown into the sea. Today there is a memorial there; Calderón, years ago, wrote the audio guide. (In Villa, he's doing the same task a different way.)

For me, the shock came when the play and the reality came crashing finally together, as—for hours after the show—I read about the Pinochet regime's atrocities. I realized that, somehow, despite the brutal content, I had been enjoying myself at the theater, delighted by Calderón's craft. The Alejandras had been right. They told us and told us and told us: Any memorial can be misunderstood.

Wild Project (Off Broadway). Written and directed by Guillermo Calderón. Translated by William Gregory. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through Apr 1. Click here for full venue and ticket information.

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