A fraught political journey

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Part of the magic of a great play is you get to experience a new world. For just a couple hours, you become a traveler with the actors into a playwright's thoughts, ideas, customs. Sometimes that journey is just across town (often it's just another trip to New York) but if we're lucky we get to travel to another part of the world.

For Guillermo Calderon's play Mateluna we travel to a politically fraught Chile.

Mateluna gets its name from Jorge Mateluna, a revolutionary who fought many years ago to bring down Chile's dictatorship.

We’re introduced to Jorge Mateluna, or at least his picture at the beginning of the play. An actress tells us (in a sort of an extended prologue) that the company met Mateluna when they were making a play about the secret guerilla schools that taught young people how to make bombs to bring down Chile’s dictatorship. While they were making that piece Jorge Mateluna came and shared his story, the actors tell us, and it became the backbone of that play.

Then we’re shown a little snippet of that play.

Then an actor tells us, that the company discovered that this same Jorge Mateluna has been thrown in prison for robbing a bank. This shocks the company, the actor tell us. Why would this man who had a job and a family, how could this former revolutionary, rob a bank. They are devastated but they are told, by the state, that this man Mateluna has been identified in a line up and convicted to a 16-year sentence.

So, we are told, the theater company goes on to make a series of pieces to both celebrate and try to understand this man and his apparent crime. They imagine him as that young revolutionary building secret bombs and now fed up that bourgeois, capitalist society has taken over. They make a play, we are told, where he dies an explosive death.

They show us a snippet of that play.

Then the company realizes they have just killed their hero.

So then we see an excerpt of a youtube video the company apparently made where, clad in the ski masks of a revolutionary or a bandit, they seem to renounce the use of violence and weapons for any means. This doesn't satisfy the company either so, we are told, they made a six-hour piece set in Sweden during World War II with anti-fascists and Bertolt Brecht.

We see a snippet of that play.

There's a lot of details here and it’s getting pretty meta -- sort of a prologue of a play about a company making a series of plays that may or may not exist. Confusing, right?

I'm not sure all of this travels quite as well as the company might hope. Here's the challenge, Guillermo Calderon and his company are exploring the nuanced world between politics and art. They are questioning what power art, especially theater, has to change the world. In many ways, it's the same remarkable territory they travelled in their earlier play Neva that showed at REDCAT during the first Radar LA festival. But where that show dropped enough Chekhovian breadcrumbs for us to follow along, this show relies on a complicated understanding of not only Chilean politics but the company itself.

Apparently, several of the plays we are told the company made - don't exist, or perhaps said more clearly - don't exist except within this play. The company is using the mechanics of an inside joke that I fear we're not in on.

Ultimately, the company argues that Jorge Mateluna is innocent, that the government's case is a fiction. The power of that is clear.

What's less clear is whether a Los Angeles audience, without a detailed knowledge of Chilean politics, can really appreciate the complicated journey Guillermo Calderon's company is asking us to take.

Mateluna played at REDCAT downtown this past weekend.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Photo courtesy of Fundación Festival Internacional de Teatro a Mil, FITAM