OTB's new Argentinean play: Where's the character?

"El Pasado es un animal grotesco," a new play at On the Boards, follows the story of two Argentinean couples, but language barriers foul up the emotion in their uninteresting lives.

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"El Pasado es un animal grotesco" [The past is a grotesque animal]

"El Pasado es un animal grotesco," a new play at On the Boards, follows the story of two Argentinean couples, but language barriers foul up the emotion in their uninteresting lives.

The Argentinean play "El Pasado es un animal grotesco" (The Past is a grotesque animal) by author and director Mariano Pensotti is an odd production for On the Boards to present. It’s a talky series of parallel vignettes about four twenty-something Portenos (residents of Buenos Aires). The vignettes relating to each character are narrated, voice-over style, by one of the other actors who steps out of character to describe what is happening. Rarely do the four actors speak in their own episodes; instead, they rely mostly on mime to act out the narrators’ storytelling.

The narration is done entirely in Spanish, and in the particularly difficult-to-understand Italian-influenced Spanish of Argentina. Even native Spanish speakers can have challenges with the accent; for those of us who aren’t fluent or who have no Spanish at all, the narration is mostly incomprehensible. OtB has attempted to address this by hanging panels with supertitles off to the sides of the rotating platform that serves as the play’s stage. But the panels are so far away from the platform that it is impossible to read the titles and watch the actors at the same time.

My companion and I, and I suspect most of the audience, chose to read the titles rather than follow the physical action, so that the experience was more akin to reading a play with a disembodied voice in the background than seeing a live performance.

Under the circumstances, it’s a little unfair to comment on the actors — Pilar Gamboa, Javier Lorenzo, Santiago Gobernori, and María Ines Sancerni — apart from their ability to recite a very verbose script from memory. But when I was able to pull myself away from the titles — my Spanish is good enough that I was able to understand some of the narration — it seemed to me the performers were doing a creditable job.

A more fundamental problem is that the characters and their stories aren’t very interesting. Each character — Vicky, her lover Mario, Pablo, and Laura — are drifting through life, not sure of what they want to do either personally or professionally. Mario wants to direct films, but winds up as an actor in TV commercials; Vicky works for a vet, but for her it’s just a job. She and Mario can’t decide if they want to stay together or settle down and start a family.

Laura is equally clueless about her goals; by accident she winds up acting as Mary Magdalene at a religious Disneyland-like tourist attraction. The only one who has a real career is Pablo, a manager at a chewing gum company, but he’s obsessed with a severed hand that winds up in his mail one day (who wouldn’t be?) and lets his career go to seed. Laura and Pablo are no more successful at relationships than Vicky and Mario.

Because the events in the characters’ lives are largely externalized in the monotonic storytelling, we never feel any emotion, either in the telling or the acting out. In the end, despite their tribulations, we neither fully understand nor care what happens to the four.

There are a few unresolved questions at the play’s end that add to the confusion. What is the severed hand all about? Who sent it and why does Pablo hold onto it for 10 years? Why does Vicky develop a long-distance correspondence with her father, pretending to be an older woman searching for a mate? Although these questions are left unanswered, the characters’ stories haven’t engaged us enough to make us want to spend time figuring out the answers.

It’s a shame the play has such structural weaknesses since the staging is highly inventive. The bare plywood rotating platform is divided into four sections with each episode taking place in a different section. The narrators move along the edge of the platform so that they are standing next to the particular episode they are describing. The sets are minimal — a table, chair, TV set, bed — but do an effective job of conveying the different environments where the vignettes take place.

Diego Vainer’s music and Demian Chorovicz’ haunting soundscape moves us along from episode to episode, but in the end the production elements cannot overcome the weaknesses at the core of "El Pasado es un animal grotesco."

If you go: "El Pasado es un animal grotesco" by Mariano Pensotti, On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street, through February 12. Tickets $25, Seniors $21, under 25 $12 and are available at the box office, by phone 206.217.9888, or online at www.ontheboards.org


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