'Valdivia': A New Look the Chilean Conquistador

In an exciting twist on the traditional historical play, Ines Stranger’s latest work “Valdivia” tells the story of the man behind the celebrated Chilean conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia. The play is the first in a series of similar works conceived as a way to combat the disconnect between many Chileans and the historical figures that are central to their country’s identity and mythology. Valdivia, who founded Santiago in 1541, is among the most important of these personages.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Michelle Lezana

Despite his historical significance, many Chileans have a vague and underdeveloped conception of their great national icon. “For us Chileans, Pedro de Valdivia could be simply a street in Providencia, or the man who appears on the old 500 pesos bill, or the founder of Santiago at Pedro Lira" Macarena Baeza, the play’s director, said in a recent interview for La Universidad Católica.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Michelle Lezana

With this new production (see photos), both playwright and director succeed in taking a historical figure and transforming him into a flesh and blood individual with whom an audience can feel genuine empathy and understanding. One way in which this is achieved is through the domestic interactions between Valdivia and his mistress Ines de Suarez. In these moments the intrepid hero is transformed into a tender and vulnerable lover, allowing the viewer to see him in a more humanizing light.

The title actor, Jose Miguel Neira, performs the role of Pedro de Valdivia with energy and enthusiasm, handling a complicated spectrum of emotions with ease and enviable stage presence. His chemistry with lead actress Ornella de la Vega, who plays Valdivia’s mistress, is also extremely convincing and engrossing. Suarez, who defended Santiago against an Indian invasion in 1541, is not any easy character to embody. De la Vega, however is up to the challenge, and imbues her character with strength, passion and an indomitable spirit.

Baeza compliments the emotional intensity of the text by staging the play in an extremely minimalistic fashion. The Spartan set consists of only a few planks that are suggestive of the early geography of Santiago, but which allow the audience to imagine a greater range of scenarios and possibilities. Likewise, lighting and costumes use an earthy and primitive palate, which are consistent with the time period but also evoke the fundamental passion that the characters feel for their dreams and for one another.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Michelle Lezana

What could have been strictly a historical commentary was further enriched by a meta-fictional element woven in by the playwright. In the play, Don Bruno, one of the principal characters of the production, is both a central figure in the 16th century drama and a present day historian in the process of cataloging the events of Pedro de Valdivia’s life.

The play opens with this slow moving, slightly world-wearied figure returning books and documents to their proper places on a bookshelf. In the midst of his labor, however, a heart attack renders him unconscious, and when he wakes up he is in 16th century Chile in the midst of a battle between the Spaniards and the displaced Indians. Don Bruno’s appearance in the play often coincides with a reference to letters or other documents, and his presence provides the audience with the sense that history is being written in front of their eyes.

Stranger’s “Valdivia” is also reminiscent of a Greek tragedy in that the protagonist is unable to escape a preordained fate. Valdivia is the tragic hero, while director Macarena Baeza has likened Don Bruno to, “a species of the Greek Cassandra: condemned to telling the future without having anyone heed her warnings.” These allusions to other literary and theatrical genres give the production a depth that it might have otherwise lacked, and provide the spectator with plenty of material for consideration after the play ends.

For a person unfamiliar with the history of the Spanish conquest of Chile and the life of Pedro de Valdivia, the production can occasionally be difficult to follow. Still, it is worth a few Google searches or a brief foray into Chilean history in order to familiarize yourself with the factual basis of the play. Above all, Stranger’s work is a rich and compelling reflection on loyalty, love and the sacrifices that one man made in order to fulfill a dream.

May 7 to July 11
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
General Entrance: CP$6,000
Seniors Citizens: CP$4,000
Students: CP$3.000
Teatro UC
Jorge Washington 26 (Plaza Ñuñoa)

For more information please email: teuc@uc.cl

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