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After the Coup

THEATER | THEATER NOTES

In 'Chilean Holiday,' a family seeks normalcy during a dictatorship.

April 17, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Almost a quarter of a century has slipped by since Augusto Pinochet's right-wing military coup deposed President Salvador Allende, beginning Pinochet's reign of terror as Chile's dictator.

That takes Guillermo Reyes' "Chilean Holiday," opening at the Ventura Court Theatre on Friday night, out of the category of "headline drama." It's not that kind of play anyway, the playwright asserts.

For one, this is a comedy as well as a drama. For another, it's about a family, a vaguely autobiographical family, which the playwright, who was born in Chile but raised in the U.S., uses to examine social issues in a personal manner.

Reyes, best known for his other comedy, "Men on the Verge of a Hispanic Breakdown," was literary manager of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts from 1992-1996.

"Holiday," he said during a phone interview from Arizona State University, where he has headed the playwriting program since last August, went through a number of changes before its production at the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky.

"It kept growing and growing," Reyes said. "It became this monster play. It was no longer what it used to be; it had become something else."

The play takes place in 1975 and concerns the Chilean family's annual holiday celebrating the Pinochet takeover, and the effects the fete has on family members.

"It deals with the aftermath of the coup," Reyes explained, "specifically on a conservative family, which means they're very supportive of the dictatorship, and then how the reality of the dictatorship begins to come home, so to speak. It begins to have personal repercussions beyond the family's control, which is the twist of the play."

The play may have a heavy theme, but Reyes stoutly maintains that it is essentially a comedy.

"It's a very odd comedy," he said with a chuckle. "If Chekhov can get away with saying that 'The Seagull' is a comedy, then I would say 'Chilean Holiday' is a comedy. I'm exploring how these people are struggling with their situation and going about their everyday lives, and trying to have a life, and using comedy as a defense against the tragedy surrounding them. It's a comedy of dictatorship."

Nancy Chris Evans, an original member of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, directs this West Coast premiere of Reyes' play. She agrees with him about the need for humor in drama, particularly this one.

"There's very much a party atmosphere woven in and out throughout the play," Evans said. "Everyone really wants a celebration."

The cast includes Jenny Gago, a regular on TV's "Dangerous Minds," and Maria Canals, a bright light in the Mark Taper Forum's recent "Changes of Heart" and a regular as Tony Danza's assistant Carmen on NBC's upcoming "Tony Danza Show." They're among the family attempting rather desperately to enjoy the moment.

"These are just people," said Evans, "who are having a day in their life, and they're trying to live it as normally as possible. They're trying to make their own celebration out of it."

* "Chilean Holiday," Ventura Court Theatre, 12417 Ventura Court, Studio City. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Ends May 25. $15. (213) 660-8587.

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