TBA:13: Lola Arias looks at revolution from both sides

Chile still processes the Pinochet coup d'etat in Lola Arias’s “El año que nací"


There was a palpable excitement in the theater before Sunday’s sold-out show of Lola Arias’s “El año que nací (The Year I Was Born)” even started at Imago Theatre. Perhaps the energy was generated by the packed house and the long line of people trying to get in or maybe it was simply that having the actors on stage waiting to start as we all got settled into our seats created a sense of expectation for the events to come. Either way the mixed media retelling of Chile’s Pinochet years and its aftermath through the lens of personal narrative delivered on the high expectations.

The conceit of the play is that the actors research and bring in documents about their own parents’ lives starting from when they (the children) were born. These documents and reconstructed history become the source material for imagined scenes in which the actors are playing their own parents and working through choices their parents made in an effort both to report on and process past events. There is evocative theatricality at work here: Scenes are played out with water guns, guitars, and narrated letters all creating a fresh and exciting way for us to experience a documentary play.

Lola Arias's "El año que nací"/Photo by David Alarcón

Lola Arias’s “El año que nací”/Photo by David Alarcón

The self-reflexive method of viewing history allows us to have the disquieting feeling that everything that is being divulged is true and deeply personal. This type of story allows us to see the political complexities of the time period played out on the lives of ordinary Chileans. As one would expect there are no easy answers. It is tempting to classify all those who worked with the Pinochet regime as corrupt and all those who fought against it as angelic, but real life is too layered for those absolutes.

In this play we see lives on both sides of the political divide interrupted by exile, shattered through the death or disappearance of a parent, and locked in the aftermath of a decade of paranoia and fear. We are shown a world where everyone passing through childhood is damaged by the dictatorship and the ongoing pathology stemming from the Pinochet years.

The ending of the play is a surprise but then again not: The theater troupe flips a coin to see if the next Chilean election will bring a conservative or liberal president. They decide they do not like the answer and the play ends (in a 13-person guitar extravaganza) with the post-apocalyptic notion that an earthquake just destroyed Chile and that the only people left to rebuild it are the members of the theater company.

The metaphor is clear. The current system is not working because it is merely a poor continuation of the way things have always been. Lola Arias and Company propose the equivalent of the Biblical flood to wash away the sins of the past and start over fresh and they invite us to join them.

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