Fuzzy Transmissions in Señales de Guerra

Politics is almost always guaranteed to stir passions and when attempting to deal with it in art it can be tempting to let that passion overtake the work, which is what seems to to be the case in Señales de Guerra.The play bills itself as “documentary theater,” and what is presented certainly feels like raw footage from Manuel Ortiz’s vision of Chile as a country at war with itself.

La Criatura plans for battle
La Criatura plans for battle

The play is a series of polemical vignettes that take on the socio-economic burden of modern Chilean society. At its best the play succeeds in raising important questions about the needs of the military-industrial complex: if war is driving the economic factors of modern nation states, and if that nation is not engaged in a war beyond its borders, then who is it fighting? La Compañía La Criatura explores this idea in a mixture of drama interlaced with factual, statistical outbursts and sand-on-projector art reminiscent of RSA Animae videos.

The vignettes are bound together loosely by the premise of a radio signal broadcasting different instances of “war” throughout the capital. The play opens with a group of four revolutionary youths attempting to crash the homage to Pinochet that took place in June 2012. They vaguely propose to collect video for a documentary but their mission never seems clearly defined. Once inside, Benjamin is captured, interrogated and what seems like waterboarded by secret police who like listening to Bob Dylan.

The inherent problems with Ortiz’s dramatization begin here. The torture scene feels stilted and it falls short of either comedy or shock value. However, perhaps most disappointing is that this documentary play completely overlooks the very real and complex drama that unfolded outside the Teatro Caupolicán, as a massive group of protesters took to the streets against the demonstration, only to be brutally suppressed by the police.

The play transitions to a presentation of facts using projections seamlessly and flawlessly created in real time by Patrick May and Shalini Adnani. Under the direction of May and Adnani, the visual effects--soft light from a myriad of light bulbs strung from the ceiling, matches, sterno stoves, and an overhead projector with sand--rescue the play from being an hour-long diatribe.

In the middle vignettes (perhaps the best part of the play) the actors interact with changing backgrounds, interweaving fact and playing with light as they lay out a framework of the evolution of Chile’s military-industrial complex, concluding that the modern war is against the “internal enemy,” the Chilean people.

The third vignette cleverly tells the story of an average Chilean, Juan, who in trying to subsist in the modern social-economic model is forced to work overtime to pay for his education, until finally succumbing in a public hospital to “any convenient disease.” Like the previous vignette it is visually stimulating, the soundtrack is captivating and narration ironic.

When the play tries to move back towards drama, it collapses on itself. It works from the general to the specific and tries to locate these broader concepts in the machinations of a typical Chilean family. The father, an overworked state employee-cum-alcoholic; the mother, overly worried in her blue apron; one son a revolutionary and the other, a carabinero. Originality evaporates into theater school caricature as the two sons naturally must play out their drama: left vs. right, socialist vs. fascist, protester vs. police officer, etc. Meanwhile the father sucks on a jug of wine, howling nonsense and the mother stirs an invisible bowl while nervously complaining about making ends meet. The acting becomes overwrought in a sequence that ends in predictable tragedy for characters who never manage to win the audience’s sympathy.

At certain times in the play it feels as if the actors are shouting at the audience, and while it’s commendable that La Criatura wants to bring the protest off the streets into the theater, it lacks a certain sense of nuance that could make it much more convincing and less abrasive. They would do well to take a lesson from Beckett, a master of quietly disturbing tension.

In the end, perhaps the biggest problem with Señales de Guerra is less its message than how the message is conveyed. The critical issues raised in the play are commendable, and though the context is Chilean, the themes resound on a global scale: the right of each individual to quality education, healthcare, a fare wage, and tolerance. The lucid and creative weaving of facts resounds with an audience that values the subversive possibilities of information.

Despite its shortcomings, Señales de Guerra is worth having a look for those interested in familiarizing themselves with the hot button issues in Chile today as well as exercising their knowledge of chilenismos. Arrive early, as the theater only holds around 20 people.

Señales de Guerra
June 27, 28, and 29
Students: $2,000. General: $4,000.
CEAT: Centro Experimental de Arte Tessier
Dardignac 172, Barrio Bellavista.
Metro Bellas Artes

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