Worth Seeing Twice Feb 11, 2012

by David Gassner

Mariano Pensotti’s extraordinary production, El pasado es un animal grotesco, offers great rewards for multiple viewings. I was lucky enough to catch the show at the Public Theatre’s Under the Radar Festival in New York last month, and then again last night at On the Boards. I discovered treasures and insights tonight that I’d originally missed.

The first time around, I was seduced by the cleverness of the physical setting. You might have heard about the turntable set that revolves continuously for the entire show. The slowly turning performance space is both a metaphor for the passage of time and a cleverly hypnotic device that keeps you continuously engrossed. It’s as simple as can be, made of unpainted plywood and exposed steel girders. But it contains and pushes the action forward, and hosts all of the play's action on its 4 mini-stages.

Also on first viewing, I worked to keep track of the intertwined stories: the lives of 4 young Argentineans over the course of 10 years, as they find their ways in the world. In last night’s Q&A, Mariano Pensotti said that he wrote the original text as 4 separate stories, and only then did he figure out how to mesh them together. He said that before the script was staged, it read more like a novel. The result is highly literate, filled with gorgeous sections of prose, alternating with flights of absurd and delightful comedy.

And I marveled at the passion and precision of the four actors: Pilar Gamboa, Javier Lorenzo, Santiago Gobernori, and María Ines Sancerni. Each of these fine performers plays their core character, plus many supporting characters and a narrator to boot. Their performances are all powerful, sexy, and just plain fun to watch.

When I saw the show for the second time tonight, I found myself focusing on the many layers of storytelling techniques. The production is daring in its use of visual storytelling, more reminiscent of cinema than of live theater. Only a few scenes are entirely made up of conventional theatrical dialog. Most are primarily visual action, with the actors playing at just above the volume of a movie set. What dialog there is floats in and out as though improvisational, and sometimes works more as background sound than the core of the story. It’s all bound together by the ever-present narration, in a third person voice that alternates between the distance of a movie camera, and the omniscience more commonly associated with literary fiction. Entire scenes go by without a word spoken between the characters, but they’re all related with visual clarity.The result is a combination of novelistic narration, cinematic visual action, and the minimalist physical surroundings that are unique to live theater.

And I paid more attention to the music. If you’re not familiar with the band of Montreal (playing March 24 at Showbox Market), you’ll be introduced to them by the time the show is over. Their smart, dynamic melodies and lyrics (in English!) drive the play’s action. This production just rocks.

There aren’t too many theater productions that are so worth multiple visits. If you’ve seen it once, I recommend seeing it again; and if you haven’t, I hope you will, at least once. It’s one of the more unique and exciting productions to come through town in quite awhile.