Legend has it that Cervantes was locked in a jail cell when he began to write the adventures of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza. Centuries later, exiled Argentinean theatre artist Arístides Vargas linked the Spanish classic of rejecting and transcending reality to the experience of his brother Chicho, imprisoned during their country’s brutal military dictatorship and dirty war, who told how the prisoners once a week escaped their dire circumstances through storytelling, playacting, and imagination. The result is “La Razón Blindada,” a play that has been performed and celebrated throughout Latin America and is now offered through November 7th at the 24th Street Theatre, directed by the playwright and co-produced by 24th Street along with two Mexican institutions: El Instituto de Cultura de Baja California and La Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa.
The play opens with a video backdrop: the desert. Two men walk out of the screen. Sometimes in silhouette, sometimes seen clearly, they take their places on hard straight-backed chairs mounted on casters that allow them to roll around the stage in synchronized, carefully choreographed motion. Their heads turn, slowly. We are in the world of physical theatre, on an almost bare stage, relying on the expressive possibilities of the actors’ bodies rather than elaborate set and costuming. Props will be minimal as befits the extreme deprivation of prison life–a toothbrush, a length of toilet paper, a pot with a lid, a bit of cloth.
For 80 minutes, we watch two unnamed political prisoners who are allowed out into the yard for an hour each Sunday where they reenact Cervantes’ classic, always on edge due to the unseen presence of guards. According to “De La Mancha” (Jesús Castaños-Chima), nothing is less real than reality while “Panza” (Arturo Díaz de Sandy) is induced to take on the roles of Quijote’s niece, his horse, his beloved Dulcinea, her father, and most notably, the greyhound Toribio whose comic monologue about the outrages inflicted on him for being man’s best friend is punctuated with obscenities and canine whimpers.
Vargas has explained that in real life prisoners were not allowed to stand during their brief time in the outside air. This inspired the staging of his play in which the two characters remain seated throughout the action–a limitation that spurs the theatrical imagination to create a startling recreation of the famous scene in which Don Quijote battles windmills.
We witness the grotesque contortions of men in confinement, contrasted with the wild liberation of their brief imaginative escapades. “What doesn’t exist can’t die,” De La Mancha proclaims leading Panza to ask, “Is that why God is still around?” Clearly, so are Quijote and Sancho–two immortals who continue to give solace.
Both actors offer powerful performances in Spanish that are affecting regardless of language while supertitles provide English-speakers with the dialogue. (The play’s translated title, “Armored Reason,” refers to the ambiguous safety people may feel when confined inside a suit of armor versus La Mancha’s insistence that liberation comes from rejecting such containers as reason. But rest assured, the dialogue as it appears in the English supertitles is clear and accurate and does not require any learned elucidation. All that’s lost in translation are a couple of puns and a few of Panza’s many bursts of profanity.)
Throughout the performance the theatrical space oscillates between the abstract in ways reminiscent of Beckett (and with a nod to Kafka) and more concrete references to the Argentinean pampas and Rawson Prison where Chicho Vargas was held or–specific to this production–the US-Mexico border as questions arise about who is kept in and who is kept out and video plays of the fence between Tijuana and California.
For those unfamiliar with contemporary experimental theatre from Latin America, Vargas’ work is a fine introduction with its stylized performances, heightened language, philosophical concerns, and its exploration of the dynamics of power. (“This thirst for power is a bitch,” Panza concludes, “even if we all die before we quench the thirst.”) Vargas’ plays were most recently presented in Los Angeles in 2004 with two works that explore consciousness, move in circles, and repeatedly cross the border between life and death. FITLA (the International Latino Theatre Festival) brought to the Freud Playhouse “La Casa de Rigoberta Mira al Sur,” a hallucinatory exploration of the aftermath of Nicaragua’s civil war performed by Managua’s Grupo Justo Rufino Garay. “Lazarillo,” performed by Malayerba, the company that Vargas himself co-founded in Ecuador, played at [Inside the] Ford and reinterpreted the 16th-century Spanish classic as the story of an abandoned child suffering poverty and abuse in the contemporary Amazon. If you’re more familiar with Cervantes than with the previous source materials, La Razón Blindada is a good place to start in appreciating this acclaimed playwright/director’s work.
And for those not familiar with 24th Street Theatre, located not far from USC, I’ve been attending productions there almost since its founding in 1997 by Jay McAdams and Debbie Devine. I’ve watched the theatre continually expand its outreach to the community, its plays for young audiences, its arts education for youth, and the scope and ambition of its creative undertakings. A commitment to supporting physical theatre is proved not only by this production of “La Razon Blindada” but collaborations with LA’s own Tina Kronis and Richard Alger and their company, Theatre Movement Bazaar. 24th Street’s Teatro Nuevo initiative began in 2003 with a focus on Spanish-language programming for the surrounding neighboring but has since developed into a major engine of cultural exchange bringing important artists of the Americas to Los Angeles and taking 24th Street’s own productions and teaching methods to Central and South America.
Tony Duran plays the role of Panza 10/16-10/30
- $24 Adults
- $15 Seniors/Students/Teachers
- 24-cents North University Park residents
(In the interest of being a good neighbor, the theatre asks patrons to please refrain from parking on 24th Street itself.)
Diane Lefer’s new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, has just been published. Co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, it is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change (including change in how we treat our youth) through action.