Dallas — A regional premiere, Teatro Dallas’ production of Villa by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón puts us in the room with three women charged with deciding how future generations will relate to the site of Villa Grimaldi, an infamous detention camp in Santiago, Chile, razed to the ground in an attempt to erase its infamy after the downfall of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
An interrogation center and concentration camp and former villa, Villa Grimaldi (1974-1978) is a place where sources indicate that approximately 4,500 detainees were brought there during this time, at least 240 of whom "disappeared" or were killed by the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (the national secret police). It was a place of rape, torture and utter dehumanization. The play addresses the politics of memory and how dark chapters of national history are memorialized or erased. It is a play about both personal and national trauma.
How does one make a play out of that?
Renowned playwright Calderón achieves this through a conversational trope among three female characters, all named Alejandra who are tasked with deciding what type of structure (if any) that will suit this now empty site. We do not know why all three have the same name, nor why specifically they are tasked, until the end.
I asked director Sorany Gutiérrez what stage directions were included in the script. “Barely any. Just three women sitting around a table, talking,” she said. I asked because, having observed her process during rehearsals of the FUR performance, she demonstrated a special talent of putting in motion plays that are heavily poetic or verbally dense.
For critics with minimal experience on the production end, commenting on the direction or design elements sometimes poses a challenge. After all, we just see the (hopefully) seamless end result, and mostly focus on the performance.
In this case, not to undermine the performative, it is necessary to underline both direction and design as key elements. Under the sensitive vision of Gutiérrez this play works beautifully. She puts the women in motion through their relationship to three simple architectural features designed by Nick Brethauer: open cubes on casters and along the line of the children’s game of magna boxes, a nod to the two feet by two feet cages in which the prisoners were placed. There's also a large Jenga-like game with words on the blocks. This focus echoes Teatro Dallas’ 2019-2020 season that explores “Space, Memory and Architecture.”
Set on the Latino Cultural Center’s full stage, this piece looks beautiful in juxtaposition to the horrors of the actual Villa. Jeff Hurst’s lighting design is subtle, and Jonathan Lara’s audio-visual projections upstage center are minimal yet perfect. The thrust of the experience for the audience becomes an emotional cross-waters of visual pleasure side by side with the horrors that actually occurred in the historic Villa.
There is also humor and an absurdist word play among the three Alejandras, who in the program have actual names that are never uttered during the performance.
Ana Armenta (Alejandra/Clara), Tatiana Lucia Gantt (Alejandra/Macarena), and Kimberly Winnubst (Alejandra/Francesca) argue back and forth on how to best memorialize the Villa. To leave it as a park where people can project their own memories and experience onto it, while emphasizing a hopeful future? To erect a beautiful, sleek white museum where the experience of the horror is memorialized in a space stripped of the actual ugliness? To create a house of horrors whereby people can actually feel and experience the horrors that occurred there?
Each of the Alejandras go back and forth, sometimes agreeing with one but never with both. Their positions in the argument is never static, which keeps the audience guessing as to what comes next since the only plot element is making a decision. These actors are effective in projecting their own personality of each Alejandra.
The bantering back and forth says much about the politics of memory-building on a national scale. This play is a treatise on the illogical logic of such an undertaking.
Gutiérrez stated in our interview with her that this play brings the past into the present. “Memory is something is in the past, but in this present we are also creating the past that is going to be in thirty years. Probably the memories that these kids in the [border] camps are going to have in thirty years are going to be probably the same of the three characters that we are talking about in our play, that they lived 20 years ago in Chile.”
Gutiérrez invited local residents Chilean Jorge and Andrea Correa, who lived through this period, to share their experiences with cast members during rehearsals. In this way, this director adds a degree of sensitivity, authenticity and due respect to the artistic interpretation of this delicate subject matter. A sign of an inspiring director one can trust to deliver.
While there is no physical violence, there are verbal references specific to the acts of violence performed in the camp. Adults and mature teens are best suited for this play.
It’s a powerful production that has much to say about our world today. Put it on your list.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). Her Spanish-language play, La Familia, is published in Teatro Latino: Nuevas Obras de los Estados Unidos (2019, available on Amazon). She is working on her third play, Second-Hand Conversations with Irene, which pays homage to two women with dementia.