The Mothers | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Chameleon Productions

at the Edgewater Theatre Center

When Eva Peron, first lady of Argentina, died in 1952 of uterine cancer, there were many who were happy to see her go. Military leaders had long been jealous of her influence over their president, and the aristocracy resentful of the power wielded by the former film actress. In Lavonne Mueller's The Mothers, these factions are represented by the asthmatic General Bonifaz and by the rabbity mortician Dr. Ara. As the lovely, ruthless Evita languishes in the hospital, Bonifaz absentmindedly dances a tango--that most machismo of dances--waiting for the major obstacle to his assumption of leadership to disappear, while Ara prepares his laboratory as if it were a wedding chamber, anticipating his possession of the country's most desired female body. Indeed all the men, even the priests, seem to share an unhealthy curiosity about the late Senora Peron's diseased privates. Meanwhile the women of Argentina continue to pray to "Santa Evita," ignoring the fact that their husbands are disappearing from the factories and their children from the universities--taken away in government vehicles, never to be seen again.

And what kind of a country is it, asks Mueller, where people lavish more attention on a dead woman than on a thousand murdered citizens? "This country has no history!" growls Bonifaz. "Only myths!" And myths are handy tools for distracting the population from their immediate problems. Knowing this, the general assists the doctor in preserving the Santa Evita myth, embalming her remains so that they retain a particularly lifelike appearance--only to throw this icon away when it's no longer needed. But by that point the wives and mothers of the disappeared are no longer fooled. And while the terrorists in and out of uniform continue to slaughter one another for reasons that have been forgotten, the mothers make their weekly vigil at the government headquarters in a silent protest for all the world to see.

Mueller wrote The Mothers after visiting Argentina to study the mothers of Plaza de Mayo, so the play's depiction of all men as venal and all women as innocent should come as no surprise. But Mueller is not simply out to give us Yankees a good, liberal, three-hankie cry for Argentina--or merely distract us from our own troubles. This is a cool, detached look at a country embroiled in a hopeless situation. Mueller's women contribute to their own helplessness through a passive faith in miracles, and her men make their case for what has become little more than retaliatory oppression--Bonifaz knows that he may be toppled at any moment by the same methods he employed to get into power. Mueller even indulges in the grotesque humor that comes of horror too great to contemplate undiluted. "Both of Peron's wives died of uterine cancer," Dr. Ara muses. "What did he do to them?"

Chameleon Productions gives The Mothers, directed by Meredith Alexander, a neat, academic--if somewhat stylistically uneven--rendering. The scene in which one mother discovers that the clairvoyant she's been consulting is a fraud is electrifying in its poetic economy but belongs more to the mystical world of Federico Garcia Lorca than to Mueller's more mundane documentary style.

As in most such dramas, the villains have the most fun. Felipe Camacho delivers a meticulously concentrated performance as the monomaniacal Dr. Ara, a man so faithful to his vocation that be becomes almost likable in his creepy way. Though a bit uncertain of his character initially, Tony Castillo settles comfortably into the mannerisms of General Bonifaz, whose paranoia-riddled surveillance of the audience is our final image of the play's chaotic universe. Laurie Martinez as mother Esme is given little more to do than maintain a grim stoicism, and Maricela Ochoa as mother Alicia merely frets hysterically, but both provide enough variations on these themes to keep their characters interesting. Some sort of resurrection award is due to Matthew Owens for his construction of a cadaver so lifelike it appears ready to get up and dance.

Though Mueller's unemotional approach is a welcome change from the agitprop keening that usually accompanies dramatic treatments of third-world politics, it leaves us strangely disoriented, not knowing quite how we're expected to respond. There are those who will have their cry at any cost, of course, and those who will see The Mothers as another polemic on men's oppression of women. Those who find themselves laughing aloud at the macabre ridiculousness of institutionalized necrophilia, however, or who catch themselves wavering from their preconceived socially correct stances may have a slightly harder time figuring it out.

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