This month at the ACTLab, Arlene Martinez-Vazquez directs the debut of her English translation of Juan Palmieri, a play tracking the Tupamaro revolutionary movement that occurred in Uraguay in the late 60’s into the early 1970’s. The controversial piece was written by Antonio Larreta in 1971 but wasn’t performed until 1973 in Buenos Aires. Even then the play’s director was forced into exile. Though it won the Casa de las Americas theatrical award, it could never be performed in Uruguay until 2012. The work covers the death of the titular character as perceived by his mother, Carmen, played by an outstanding Carolynne Wilcox.
The work reflects the “agitprop” theater movement that arose in 1920’s Russia that calls for art to include both agitation and propaganda. The agitprop style demands that theater should both entertain and indoctrinate. The play is divided into a number of “conversations”. A collection of characters ranging from Juan’s friends, a policeman, a priest, a co-worker and Carmen’s lover all engage Carmen in dialogues through which the story of the Tupamaro uprising and Juan’s radicalization emerge. The focus ultimately lands on Carmen’s reactions to the loss of her son and her growing understanding of the corruption of the Uruguay government.
The didactic tone of much of the script nudges the play into some very dry moments; however Wilcox’s sensitive and thoughtful portrayal as Juan’s mother enables the play to continually beat with a most fervent pulse. She must piece together a set of baffling clues to decipher what exactly happened to her son who never actually appears in the play. Her acting task is Herculean in nature, consisting of a line load that might challenge Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In her role, Wilcox brilliantly portrays a character who early on steadfastly believes that “Here we are used to having peace” to a focused and energized woman realizing “It’s time to take a side…politics is for everyone.”
Though the rest of the cast’s skill levels might vary a bit, all are notably attuned and earnest throughout. Most impressive were Steve Gallion, Fernando Luna and Sophie Franco, each assuming the parts of two different characters. Martinez-Varquez keeps the pace quite brisk and adds helpful background graphics to delineate the passage of time and the nature of the assorted conversations. The troupe is part of a theater company calling themselves “Thriving Artists.” It is obvious they are greatly committed to this production and its political themes. They make the most out of some effective poetic moments in Martinez-Vazquez’s translation.
It is impossible not to watch this group of characters struggling with an increasingly corrupt government and not think of our current divisive political climate. Martinez-Vazquez concludes her program notes encouraging her audiences to “use our privilege to help those who need us. May we all be on the right side of history when the chapter on 2018 is recorded.”
Juan Palmieri runs through November 18 at the ACT’s Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space in downtown Seattle at 700 Union Street. For more ticket information call 206-292-7676 or go to https://acttheatre.org.