Santiago | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Latino Chicago Theater Company

Santiago is what not-for-profit theater should be about. The Latino Chicago Theater Company's production of Manuel Pereiras Garcia's tremendously difficult play rarely comes entirely into focus. It's an evening full of loose ends and inconsistent choices. But the material that director Juan A. Ramirez and his cast of six have chosen is endlessly fascinating if elusive. Watching these intelligent artists grapple with such challenging material is rewarding in and of itself.

Santiago presents several interwoven stories of love and violence set in the besieged Chilean city. A woman identified only as "She" (Laurie Martinez), married to a government torturer (Michael Ramirez), picks up a stranger (Horacio Sanz) in a movie theater, and after a seemingly obligatory sexual encounter promptly falls in love. It's clear her lover is in danger, but it's hard to tell who poses the greater threat: the woman's jealous husband, who comments offhandedly that he must often revive his victims before he can continue to torture them to their death, or the woman herself, who admits that she staged her own rape at home with a young boy, knowing it would be videotaped by her husband's surveillance cameras. Her intention is to throw suspicion away from her lover, but the boy is killed.

Episodes like these are casually mentioned throughout the play, creating the imaginary world of Garcia's Santiago. And during the blackouts between scenes we hear voice-overs describing various coups and guerrilla attacks. By never actually portraying this violence onstage, Garcia makes it all the more terrifying in imagination. But these horrors can also be absurd: the woman's comatose brother (Ralph Miranda), who happened to be on a bus that was randomly attacked by a guerrilla group, somehow has come to be revered in the town as a martyr, his misfortune turned into an act of heroism.

Garcia's play is made up of a dozen short scenes and a few songs in a music-hall style. In this production music is key. Not only do these songs add a surreal and strangely decadent tone a la Kurt Weill, but the characters seem able to connect to their passions only through music. In their nonmusical "real" lives they're indifferent and numb.

Director Ramirez wisely underscores this theme by drawing attention to two characters who might otherwise have been considered marginal. First, he gives the laundress Pilar (Lisa Marie Ackel) a sensuality none of the other characters possesses. Barefoot, wearing a loose-fitting cotton skirt and camisole, her dark, wavy hair falling around her shoulders, she has a relaxed physicality no one else does. She also sings the first song of the evening, in effect embodying the connection between music and emotion. She sings repeatedly that without love there is no life.

Second, Ramirez places a bandoneon player (Alejandro Escarpino) upstage under a street lamp, where he watches over the entire production. Each scene change is punctuated by the gorgeous, emotional strains of his squeeze box, and he introduces each scene with a brief summary in elevated Spanish, giving the language a musicality the other characters don't give their speech.

By allowing only these two incidental characters to truly connect with their passions, Ramirez artfully dramatizes the central characters' perverse insensitivity. The woman's face hardly ever registers an expression. Her husband reaches orgasm by imagining his wife cheating on him. Even her lover, a member of the underground resistance, says of his movement, "Remember the main rule: kill."

The cast are quite adept at bringing out the play's dark undertones, and they never pull back from the truly horrific moments. They seem less comfortable, however, playing the humor, which is crucial: the playwright's vision seems grotesque rather than somber. For example, the woman's comatose brother is "bathed" by dumping a pitcher of water on him as he lies on his cot. In this production that darkly satiric edge has largely been muffled, and as a result the play never seems to find a point of view that will tie everything together.

Santiago challenges the audience, not only in its subject matter but in its use of conflicting realities onstage. After all, the characters in most political dramas don't break into song. Trying to piece this play together must have been hard work, but watching Latino Chicago Theater make the attempt is inspiring.

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