Taller del Sotano

at the 1994 International Theatre Festival of Chicago, Wellington Theater

To say that Mexico City’s Taller del Sotano is a world-class company is a bit of an understatement. The vocal and physical craft exhibited by these spirited actors is the kind we Americans see almost exclusively at international festivals, because American actors rarely receive serious technical training. Instead they rely on an intellectual understanding of the text and an ability to engage their emotions. This is like believing that the key to playing a Beethoven piano sonata is looking over the score half a dozen times and then going off somewhere and getting worked up about it.

The actors in Taller del Sotano understand the importance of mastering the fundamentals. The exquisite physical control these artists display is restricted in America to the best professional sports teams. The cast spent two months, all day, every day, just developing a physical language for Jardin de pulpos (“Octopus Garden”), given its American premiere at this year’s International Theatre Festival. And all this work was done without the benefit of pay. In fact, one of the cast members told me that Taller’s appearance at Chicago’s festival marks the first time the company have been paid for their work, even though they’ve appeared in half a dozen other festivals in Latin and South America.

The cast’s extraordinary dedication is evident from the moment Jardin begins. Ghostlike figures appear across the back of the stage, faces distorted into grotesque masks and bodies bent into highly stylized positions. While the action of the play begins downstage, these figures hold their positions for perhaps 15 minutes, occasionally raising an arm or turning a head in excruciating slow motion. Even doing “nothing,” these actors are riveting. Most remarkable of all is that the actors’ physical feats, here and throughout the play, seem to require no effort. This is the mark of master artists: developing a technique to a level so virtuosic that it’s second nature and can be applied to the project at hand.

And what a project Jardin de pulpos is. Ecuadoran playwright-director Aristides Vargas has written a dizzyingly beautiful play whose creativity, nuance, and sophistication are matched by his sublime direction. Vargas’s premise is simple and evocative. Jose, a hapless everyman, has lost his memory because something terrible happened in the abandoned public plaza where the play is set. His friend Antonia tells him that to recover his memory he must dream. Then he will have a past, even though it will be made up of dreamed events rather than real ones.

The play ventures into unpredictable, highly suggestive psychological realms. Jose dreams of his ancestors–a sleepwalker, a vaudevillian, a glutton–then of his lusty but innocent adolescence, and finally of the creation of the world itself.

These dream worlds are full of arresting images. A porter in a red jacket and torn knickers staggers around the stage while a virgin in white, mouth agape in no particular expression, sits in a wooden chair strapped to his back. A young soldier bids farewell to his lover repeatedly, for every time he clutches her to his breast she slides down his body and onto the floor as though she were made of water. A desperately lonely old woman saunters across the back of the stage, dragging behind her several pairs of shoes, marching in neat rows, as though all the people she’s lost remain tied to her forever.

Vargas’s indebtedness to certain European innovators is clear. The grotesque comedy of the great Polish director Tadeusz Kantor is in evidence, as are the sad and violent sexual couplings of German dance-theater artist Pina Bausch. But Jardin also has a Latin sensibility reminiscent of the work of Chile’s Pablo Neruda, Spain’s Fernando Arrabal, and Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez. All these writers share with Vargas the ability to bring together the profane and the sacred, the vile and the pure, the real and the magical–to transcend what English-speaking cultures tend to think of as opposites. For example, Jose’s grandmother mourns her dead husband with an undying love. Her heart is so full of love, she tells us, that she must expel some every day so as not to be overwhelmed. In the same breath, however, she rails against her dead husband for his lifelong habit of eating pork and passing gas. Somehow love and flatulence become two sides of a single emotional experience, each heightening the reality and intensity of the other.

Jardin achieves a richness and complexity rare in American theater; it makes you think and sweat. To an alarming degree, American audiences want the good separated from the bad, the acceptable from the unacceptable, the clean from the dirty–and American theater artists are only too happy to oblige. By reducing reality to a one-sided argument, artists simply comply with the American tendency to deny all but what we want to see. How else could we bomb the hell out of Baghdad and then have parades for six months? As Village Voice critic Michael Feingold put it, “America is the only Western nation that actively confuses the comforting official statement with reality.”

In Jardin de pulpos there cannot be a comforting official statement because every image, idea, and emotion contains its opposite, no matter how unpleasant. The chaste aunt can’t keep her hands off her 12-year-old nephew. The enchanting mermaid stinks so badly people can hardly stay in the same room with her. Love robs Antonia of her right to be lonely and miserable. These images don’t purport to instruct, moralize, or enlighten. They aim to put us back in touch with the true nature of human experience, which is everywhere filled with the tension of irreconcilable opposites.

Perhaps the most important opposites in this play are innocence and corruption. The world of Jardin is psychologically barren–symbolized by the empty plaza–and hopelessly corrupt. “Everything here is bought and sold,” says Antonia, “and what isn’t sold is rented.” Yet Jardin is ultimately a hopeful and optimistic play. Jose’s primary mission is to create something pure from the sordid debris of his existence. He dreams himself a new past, a new identity, a new place in the world.

The need to find one’s country of origin–whether literal or metaphorical–fuels this piece. Jose is in effect an exile without a memory, searching for primal sources in his ancestors, in his adolescence, and in mythology. Jose’s anomie may have particular relevance to the current political situation in Mexico, for the press materials focus almost exclusively on the political aspects of the piece. But the idea of historical amnesia seems perfectly relevant to contemporary America as well. As David Bowie sang in “Young Americans,” “Do you remember your President Nixon?” The response to Nixon’s death implies that we do not. As Antonia says, “Time makes the vilest things perfect.”

Near the end of the play Antonia laments that without young people–most of whom, we discover, were massacred in the plaza–ideas no longer float into the air. Taller del Sotano, only four years in existence, has burst onto the international scene as if to fill that void, working with maturity and confidence, sending out not just ideas but truths. Theirs is the kind of theater that can rejuvenate the novice and seasoned viewer alike.

Taller del Sotano is doing precisely the kind of physical ensemble work to which many Chicago theater companies aspire, yet most of the Chicago artists I encouraged to see this piece said they couldn’t afford a ticket (apparently unaware of the five-dollar vouchers made available earlier in the year to Chicago theater professionals). They might have learned a valuable lesson: that discipline, intellectual rigor, and awareness of world theater make the difference between storefront mediocrity and international success.