By Sarah Downs
In The Underground Theater at the Abrons Arts Center, some uniquely creative and though-provoking theater is taking place. Presented by Caborca, Distant Star, based on the novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, is a play that keeps you guessing – and learning.
The Underground Theater can be well described as a bunker, given its near claustrophobic sterility, rather like the artistic and emotional prison in which Chileans lived during the years of brutal dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, a man whose name became synonymous with ‘war crime.’ Dictators thrive on the silencing of any opposition, and Pinochet proved himself a master of silence. Against this background, Javier Antonio González has woven a tale of mystery and darkness; of poetry, an inexplicable murder and quiet disappearance, drawing us into a surreal world where language is personal, the personal is political, and politics is everything.
An excellent ensemble of actors, using every inch of the space to the very walls, play a variety of characters. Moving smoothly among fleeting identities, they sustain the performance with consistently focused energy. Their training and intelligence is evident with every word. As the central character Belano David Skeist has mastered an enormous amount of material. His earnest intensity never wavers as he carries the story forward. He is our guide. Luis Moreno as Bibliano, Belano’s conversational counterpart, among other characters, adds depth and texture. Laura Butler Rivera plays everything from rebel to sultry mistress, transforming herself so completely you are surprised at her every entrance. Tania Molina has an ineffable sadness that makes her most dramatic moments all the more poignant. Conversely, Jon Froehlich has a taut energy and flexibility, particularly evident in the role of an artist forced to paint with his toes, that grabs your attention. You won’t be able to look away until he is ready to release you. As the story winds to its conclusion Anne Gridley is our true detective. You know she will get her man.
This production operates on several levels simultaneously, with an ingenious use of various projections and other visual effects, offstage narration and onstage drama, layering image upon word, upon character, upon idea. In this way director Shira Milikowsky has created a dialogue among diverse elements. Projected film and still images push beyond the concrete walls; scrawled words and shadow pull you forward; lighting changes pull you inward; offstage mystery catches your ear. All factors contribute to a plasticity that presents a narrative unfettered by spatial or even temporal concerns. In my head I keep hearing my college tutor saying “text, text, everything is text; you are text, I am text.” I thought she was a wacko (she was) but in Distant Star her words make sense. Distant Star is both storytelling and story-being.
By happenstance the film Mother, a similarly ambitious project, just opened, offering us a golden opportunity to see what money cannot buy versus what ingenuity and daring can create. One is an extravaganza, aspiring to invoke allegory with noisy, overcrowded scenes, and the other brings to life a multi-faceted, surreal world using basic furniture, minimal props and some digital cameras. This is why we love theater. In the right hands, less can be so much more.
Distant Star adapted by Javier Antonio González, from the Roberto Bolaño novel; directed by Shira Milikowsky; with David Skeist, Anne Gridley, Luis Moreno, Laura Butler Rivera, Jon Froehlich, and Tania Molina; produced by Madeleine Bersin; with Jian Jung (sets), Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (lights), Sarah Cubbage (costumes), Bozkurt “Bozzy” Karasu (sound), Kyoung H. Park (dramaturgy) and Sarah Devon Ford (production stage manager). Caborca Artistic Director – Javier Antonio González; Producing Director – David Skeist,
Running September 14–October 1 at Abrons Arts Center, located at 466 Grant Street in Manhattan; tickets, priced at $25, go to abronsartscenter.org or call 212-352-3101.