TBA12/ Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol: Staging history

Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, “Asalto al Agua Transparente”/Chelsea Petrakis,
Courtesy Portland Institute of Contemporary Art

How do you put history on stage? It’s a question as old as theater itself, yet even Shakespeare himself occasionally struggled with the problem of integrating dramatic action with the historical facts the audience needs to know to appreciate the meaning of what they’re seeing. Since 2003, the Mexico City based theater troupe Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol (Lizards Lying in the Sun) has specialized in dramatizing current events and history, and they brought two of their projects to this year’s Time Based Arts Festival.

The first, “The Rumor of Fire,” performed at downtown Portland’s Winningstad theater, starts off in time tested manner, purporting to put a face on large historical events via the story of a single character who participated in or was touched by many of the various political uprisings that wracked Mexico in the 1960s and ’70. The multi-decade ambit means there’s a LOT of history to cram in, especially for a North American audience, many of whom probably glimpsed the upheaval only during the massacre of student protestors at Tlatelolco Plaza during the 1968 Summer Olympics.
I’m a history geek in general and know a bit about this particular period in particular, having actually toured the massacre site in the company of a Mexico-based journalist who explained a lot about the student movement of the time, so I would have happily sat through a simple lecture on the subject. Yet even I found the tide of narrated information occasionally overwhelming and the pace dragging, despite the use of video of historical footage and various theatrical devices such as masks to try to show rather than tell. For example, toy soldiers illustrate a battle between insurgents and police and army forces — an effective representation of the naive idealism of that generation of young revolutionaries. Covering so much historical territory presents a real challenge, especially for an audience unfamiliar with the context, and this overstuffed production, while informative, probably needs tweaking and trimming if it’s to work for many non-Mexicans and non history nerds.

Given that it covers an even greater stretch of time — the seven centuries from the Aztec Empire to today — you might expect the Lizards’ second production, “The Assault on Clear Waters,” performed at BodyVox’s theater space, to suffer even more from expositionitis. And yet somehow it worked better. Like “Rumor of Fire”, this one uses characters to tell both personal and historical stories. This time, company founders Gabino Rodriguez and Luisa Pardo play a couple talking — and eventually arguing — about everything from jobs to where to live to whether to use water for drinking or showering.

Their argument slyly slips in sequences that recount how humans built a capital in a lakebed and proceeded to drain almost all 2000 square kilometers of water as the population surged and sprawled. It’s a clever way to cite statistics (without bothering to contrive any explanation about why the couple is suddenly delivering a dramatic interpretation of nothing but historical exposition) about water use and information about hydraulics, irrigation and dams into what seem to be “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” -style bickerings, complete with thrown furniture and other examples of waste — the very culprit that’s consuming the resources that make the city (barely) livable today. And allows the play to show how the crisis is a consequence of real and conflicting human needs.

It reminded me a bit of the way Portland/Chicago’s Sojourn Theater tries to connect theater with social issues, but using more metaphorical imagery and, alas, less assiduous devotion to actual human stories; the characters here are simply and unapologetically mouthpieces. As a result, the show could use a still closer connection between its expository and dramatic elements, but as my companion for the evening said, “I wish all history classes could be taught like this.” Maybe they should.

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