Pinochet: A Carnival
at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church
By Carol Burbank
Watching the news one can't always tell which are the heroes and which are the monsters. Ethnic Albanians disappear into mass graves or are herded into refugee camps while we drop bombs on Kosovo. The United States mourns the victims and demonizes the murderers in Littleton, Colorado. And there are hints of hidden motivations and other undisclosed information behind the headlines.
Need some perspective? It's the perfect time to turn to Theater Oobleck, a steady source of irreverent political theater. It's not that their roughneck satirical mayhem offers any remedy for the unremitting grief. Instead Oobleck creates chaos where there once was an appearance of order, using the cartoonish intelligence of the troupe's inspiration, Dr. Seuss, to reveal the dark foolishness behind oppression.
Imagining an Americanized Augusto Pinochet, Oobleck takes on Chile's notorious dictator in Pinochet: A Carnival. Now under house arrest in a mansion outside London pending trial for murder and torture, Pinochet was backed by the U.S. government in Chile for at least 15 years (he ruled from 1973 to 1988). U.S. operatives trained his troops in torture techniques and also assisted in tracking rebels down, according to a recently declassified document quoted in Oobleck's program. Their carnival--or freak show--imagines General Pinochet as a clown monster, still reeking of privilege and protection, on a madcap journey through his mostly comfortable exile, tracing his route to the mansion-prison from the injury that led him to a London hospital to the indecisive trial a few months ago that denied him immunity but offered no clear guidelines for dealing with the charges against him.
The play opens with Pinochet reading aloud from a huge storybook, a communist-bashing allegory of his life. When he injures his back, he begins his journey through Oobleck's surreal world of hospitals and kangaroo courts. If, as Oo-Pinochet says, he created "a neodemocracy safe from the excesses of liberty" in Chile, Oobleck has introduced plenty of excess in this romp, addressing not only Pinochet's life but bad health care, bad presidents, bad acting, and bad theater. The plot is conveyed in short, loud episodes punctuated by the remarkable tootling dissonance of an all-saxophone band. Performers in jumpsuits labeled "FBI, ITT, CIA" guide Pinochet through bedlam, transforming into doctors, nurses, cancer patients, narrators, puppeteers, and lawyers at a moment's notice.
Pinochet doesn't get all the glory, although actor Mickle Maher whines and connives through every scene with the skillful abandon of Abbott and Costello and the agitprop San Francisco Mime Troupe. Amy Warren has a few star turns as an old woman playing 20 Questions with her tumor, as the calm torturer Dr. Prozac, and as Pinochet's lisping, ineffectual prosecutor.
But the real star of the show is writer Dave Bye-Bye, who also plays Judge Punch, the puppet who tries Pinochet (for a parking ticket and crimes against humanity) after Judy pummels him with a sausage into an appropriate judicial stupor. Collaborating with other Oobleck members to develop the play, Bye-Bye has a campy pop-culture sensibility that makes each scene a surprise. You never know who or what will be sent up: the ensemble uses the effusive foolishness of Roberto Benigni's Academy Awards performance as a clever footnote to its depictions of Clinton's childish hedonism, Margaret Thatcher's titanic capitalism, and Pinochet's indifference to everyone's welfare but his own.
The impressive speed of the jokes and scenes makes the packed text even funnier. But Oobleck also takes care of audience members who might not know the history behind the humor. In the hospital, the genealogy of Pinochet's protection is acted out in a series of ridiculous births: Pinochet begets Thatcher who begets Reagan who begets Clinton--all at the service of the CIA. In the courtroom scene, the climax of the play, Pinochet calls character witnesses who demonstrate or describe the alliances that made him so powerful. Conservative economist Milton Friedman, for example, reads from his book Free to Choose, outlining the fascist policies that made Pinochet rich. And lest we forget this is a serious matter, a contemporary torture victim from Uruguay crosses the stage telling his story without pathos or satire, interrupting the jokes with a plain, chilling story before shuffling off into a truly tragic exile.
It's the kind of show that promises to follow you around for weeks, poking you in the ribs and jostling your conscience. Together Bye-Bye and the Oobleck ensemble create layers of coarse comedy, sophisticated satire, and poignant stories that make their angry take on history even more outrageous. Little jokes return at odd moments. Judge Punch's revision of "Macarena," that annoying song of a few years ago, includes a verse criticizing conspicuous consumption that still has me humming: "I wasn't hungry, so I had a pizza / I wasn't thirsty, so I had a Pepsi / I had a sweet tooth, so I had a cookie / Heeeeey, Macaroonia." Very silly but effective. Or I'll suddenly remember the prosecutor's ridiculous interrogation of Pinochet and his witnesses. Brandishing various produce with as much menace as a woman in a spangled top and tutu can muster, she barks out, "Can you identify this fruit?" With each item she launches a nonsensical but magical argument against the defendant, proving his guilt conclusively--or not, depending on Judge Punch's mood. Or my mind will flash back to a document reprinted in the program, a 1970 memo recording Kissinger's support of Pinochet's activities: "Dr. Kissinger discussed his desire that...our encouragement to the Chilean military in recent weeks be kept as secret as possible."
Striking oppositions throughout this carnival celebration make it easy to remember Oobleck's images. Wickedly intelligent satire suddenly turns into a poop joke. A parody of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle transforms into a surrealist fantasy. An unnervingly brutal history lesson is interrupted by a narrator announcing a strange new policy from "Inhumana" Health Care. A clown quotes a Pablo Neruda poem about poverty, then wonders aloud whether it has any relevance to Pinochet's back problem. It's impossible to sleep through this cluttered, truth-telling monstrosity, a show so entertaining that it shrinks monsters down to human size and so serious it puts the responsibility for Pinochet's glory right in our laps.
Pinochet: A Carnival is a raucous portrait of a little Hitler nurtured and trained by the United States. Maybe this little piece of parodic history will make our sanctimonious moral stance on the war against Milosevic seem merely the party line, as our unthinking support of Pinochet was decades ago. Whether we make that leap or not, truly considering our heroes and monsters, Oobleck makes us laugh at history till it hurts.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.