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Playwright drags Chile's conscience into the spotlight

Guillermo Calderón, alarmed as much by his country's current neo-liberalism as its hyper-repressive past, lets his characters vent for him in 'Villa + Discurso.'

April 20, 2013|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Scene from the play "Discurso" that is being performed at REDCAT. Macarena Zamudio, left, Francisca Lewin and Carla Romero in "Discurso" at REDCAT.
Scene from the play "Discurso" that is being performed at REDCAT.… (REDCAT )

The stage lights rise, and Michelle Bachelet — former political prisoner, torture victim and socialist president of Chile from 2006 to 2010 — braces herself to deliver a dramatic farewell speech. "Pardon me if I offend the fascists," she tells her audience in Spanish, "or if I offend those that want a happy ending. But I prefer bittersweet endings."

In the compromise-seeking world of contemporary Chilean politics, such a declaration might be tantamount to career suicide. But when Bachelet's fiery language is spoken by three young women in Guillermo Calderón's play "Discurso," the actors tell us, "it's as if someone were putting words in my mouth. It's as if an opportunist were taking advantage of my body."

That opportunistic someone is Calderón, Chile's most acclaimed playwright-director of the last two decades. During that turbulent period, Chile has transitioned from the dictatorial reign of Gen. Augusto Pinochet to a neo-liberal democracy in which human rights abuses and press restrictions are way down, but income inequality and youth unrest are way up.

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These political tensions and contradictions regularly seep into Calderón's works like "Discurso," which will be performed in Spanish with English subtitles April 25-28 at REDCAT, along with a companion piece, "Villa." In "Discurso," Bachelet's dialogue is fictitious, expressing in alternately prosaic and poetic language what Calderón wishes Chile's first female president had said while in office.

Putting words in other people's mouths is, of course, what playwrights do. But for many Chileans, and not only politicians, the playwright believes, saying what you really think doesn't come easily, especially when it relates to the Pinochet era.

"Chile is a country where one doesn't speak that much, where ideas aren't expressed very well, because it is a country that's a little more silent and a little more violent" than other countries, Calderón said in Spanish this month, speaking by phone from Boston. "I like to create characters who talk," he continued, "because to me this is a reaction against the culture of self-censorship and secrecy of the dictatorship."

What preoccupies Calderón isn't simply Pinochet's legacy but rather what he views as Chile's post-Pinochet mindless consumerism and growing social inequality and its eagerness to embrace a mushy political centrism so as to avoid making tough choices. Time and again, his plays return not only to politics and human rights but also to themes of economic disparity and the plight of Chile's indigenous Mapuche Indians.

"One of the problems of the world today is that no alternative exists to this wild neo-liberalism," he said, using a term that denotes largely unfettered free trade and privatization. "It's very difficult in Latin America to take another road. Because there simply is no other."

His nation's preference for accommodation and consensus over confrontation has created an opportunity, or obligation, for novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, musicians and other artists to "convert ourselves into the bearers of bad news," Calderón said. "Chile is a country that's very good at forgetting. And so the project of remembering is very big."

For the last several years, Calderón, in his early 40s, has been at the forefront of a tide of young creative talent in Chile. The group includes musicians such as Ana Tijoux and Pedropiedra, writers like the poet-novelist Alejandro Zambra and such filmmakers as Pablo Larraín ("No") and Andres Wood, who collaborated with Calderón on the screenplay for a new film about the great Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra. All of them came of age as artists after the dictatorship ended and often have shown more willingness than previous generations to wrestle with the nation's demons.

"I would say that since we were blocked during the dictatorship, we weren't to publish, to make any movie, there was a whole generation who suffered that silence," Larraín said this year. "So we're still carrying the legacy somehow, we cannot avoid it. But it's a whole new perspective. We are able to analyze this because we didn't directly suffer."

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Carla Romero, one of the three actors who'll perform at REDCAT, said via Skype that the works of these younger artists reflect a generation of Chileans that has become "much more radical," as evidenced by mass student demonstrations that have rocked the country in recent years.

"Our parents recuperated democracy," Romero said, but many younger Chileans believe those gains haven't been fully realized. "Chile is a country of riches," she said, "but they're very badly distributed."

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