True to its name, director Lola Arias’ El año en que nací (The Year I Was Born) begins with each of its 11 Chilean performers describing the year of their birth in the context of brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power. Theirs are stories from all sides of oppression: some have parents who were brutally murdered by Pinochet’s thugs, others have parents who served as officials in his government, while others were exiled.

Lola Arias: El año en que nací (The Year I Was Born)
Imago Theatre

Sat at 4:30, Sun at 6:30

Using props such as old clothing and faded letters from their parents, the actors proceed to tell the history of the fascist regime through their families’ own charged personal narratives. Not to say that it’s a staid history lesson. They also employ inventive and sometimes unusual multimedia and props—water guns, bikes and skateboards, a phalanx of eleven screaming guitars—that create refreshingly light-hearted moments in what is otherwise an understandably heavy couple of hours. (That said, some of the enthralling visuals were lost to those of us who had to rely on the subtitles projected above the stage, which didn’t always seem perfectly paced with the action).

Though the show’s unorthodox and sometimes clunky presentation doesn’t always perfectly hit the target, when it does, it leaves a mark. One repeating device sees a performer narrate events in their parents’ lives while other members of the cast draw on and otherwise manipulate photos, letters, and other documents from said parents—manipulations which are projected in real time on a screen behind the actors. It’s both a clever narrative device and an affecting metaphor for the way we shape and alter history by retelling it (indeed, the actors regularly rewrite the show as new things happen in their lives, including, most incredibly, one performer locating her missing father through someone who saw the show). And it really is a powerful retelling: El año en que nací is an evocative and touching convergence of personal and national history, and a crucial reminder of how hard the two are to pull apart.

It’s impossible to overlook the similarities, both in terms of story and multimedia methods, with last year’s performance by Mexican theater collective Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol about a guerilla insurrection during their parent’s generation (read the review). Yet whereas Lagartijas got so bogged down in historical names and details that it was almost impossible to keep up with the story, Arias’s company focuses more on the affecting personal narratives, so that the show connects whether you know Chilean history or not, and even left some of the audience in tears.

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