I have to admit to a serious bias. Toronto’s Chilean community is one of my favourite elements of this city’s multicultural mix. At that community’s heart is a group of progressive-minded people who fled the vicious Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and made their way to Canada. Once here, many of them have spent the past three decades working for the kind of social justice they had hoped to institute in their native country.
The grown-up children of these immigrants have recently begun using art and drama to understand the national and personal nightmares that followed the election and overthrow of socialist president Salvadore Allende back in 1970. Years later, Chileans at home and abroad are still trying to understand how their peaceable country, where Pablo Neruda, the greatest love poet of the 20th century still lived, could descend into such an orgy of hate, tyranny and civic horror.
Playwright Rosa Laborde is part of that younger generation and Tarragon Theatre presents her exciting attempt to understand this story. She gets serious assistance from some talented theatre professionals as she searches for meaning in the nightmare events of the Allende years. Richard Rose directs this one-act gem crisply and sensitively, while Graeme S Thomson has designed a subdued triangular set that works perfectly as both playing space and as metaphor.
The actors inhabit the their characters with understanding and sympathy. Most obviously, Salvatore Antonio transmits his enjoyment at playing Laborde’s most interesting creation, the title character Léo. Antonio successfully conveys the mixture of motives that define his character: sexual ambiguity, artistic single-mindedness, loyalty and jealousy. In support, Sergio Di Zio as Rodrigo and Cara Pifko as Isolda give strong performances matching Antonio in intensity and style. All three make seamless transitions from portraying the characters as preteen children into the complicated and competing adults that personify the confusions of those revolutionary years.
A minor, though satisfying, detail of all three performances is the confirmation of how Toronto’s increasingly multi-cultural theatre scene delights in the use of languages other than English; Spanish or Italian or Chinese (or name your language) names, phrases, sentences or pages now roll naturally off actors’ tongues.
My one quibble is that composer/ musician Marcelo Puente is underutilized. With only single songs from him used as prologue and epilogue, his talents are far too peripheral to this production. Laborde’s play tries with some success to evoke the spirit of Neruda. Surely Pablo would have been among the first to insist that the spirit of his beloved country is expressed best through poetry in music.