Thursday 16 October 2014

Feisty and fulsome fare = ACT's Blue Box

Overview :  Vancouver actor, playwright and memoirist Carmen Aguirre will doubtless spend her life trying to get smug 1st-world gringos to understand the passions that burned in her as an exiled-Chilean schoolkid who was born again as a teen-age anti-Pinochet resistance fighter in the 80's. In her one-woman script Blue Box those often frightful memories are shot through the prism of an early-30's drama queen who happens to be in lust with a chicano California t.v. actor. Her description of him will surely remind boomers of George Chakiris from West Side Story. In Aguirre's monologue these two stories infuse one another, confuse time continuously, and steadfastly refuse to part company even for a second.

Blue Box reprises at the Arts Club Revue stage until November 1st her 2012 Cultch show. It sizzles and seethes and sputters with antic revelation but never quite boils over randomly. No mere oozing of sex and politics here. Rather it's a spiel of cerebral emotions recalled across 90 breathy minutes. One might term it well-rehearsed "free association" -- a tale of two continents, two countries, two human states : the rational and the visceral -- and the torments and triumphs each of them presents. N.B. plot spoiler alert : in the first line uttered for comic effect Aguirre throws the "c"-word in the audience's face. She reveals that her play's title refers to the female genital condition that is akin to men's tumescent blue affliction occasioned by coitus interruptus. But first let us digress.

Backdrop :  Following the coup over socialist President Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973 -- aided and abetted by Nixon's Henry Kissinger and the CIA -- Aguirre's family along with tens of thousands of other Chileans fled the country to avoid concentration camps, torture, or being "disappeared" -- a verb-form spawned at the time -- i.e. kidnapped and killed by Pinochet's equivalent SS shock troops. But half-a-dozen years later, when Aguirre is only 11, her family abruptly decides to uproot itself from Canada to return to the South American "cone" to join a host of anti-Pinochet resisters working to overthrow him both from within Chile and from neighbouring countries. To nationalize copper and other industries and wrest them from greedy American capitalista for wealth redistribution to indigenous compesino was, and is, their holy grail.

A half-dozen years pass and teenager Aguirre joins the resisters herself, marrying another young fighter. Together they learn to fly Cessnas and Tomahawks and make surreptitious supply drops into Chile, no longer protected by the prophylaxis of her mother's safe haven in next-door Bolivia. The resistance oath states : "I will never speak of the organization or my involvement in it to anybody."  Puzo's Godfather oath of omerta as real-time Chilean mutismo.

Aguirre broke the mutismo spell with her 2012 memoir Something Fierce : Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter that won the 2012 Canada Reads competition. Most recently, among more than a dozen other scripts, comes Blue Box. 

Fast-forward : a decade and more after those resistance years Aguirre finds herself back in North America. From afar, now, she witnesses Pinochet's exile in Britain in '98 and his subsequent death in Chile in '06 awaiting trial for his 1970's human rights abuses as diktator / kommandant in her homeland. Aguirre falls giddily in lust -- love, perhaps -- for a Los Angeles t.v. star about the time she has moved back to Canada. Here she relates, poignantly, her stint performing phone sex gigs from a call centre cubicle on East Hastings. (Her "Kentucky Billy 14-year-old orphan" tale was told to a dead-silent and serious house where the only sound was a subdued sob.)  Subsequently she graduates from Studio 58 and begins to make her mark dramatically. 

Aguirre describes Blue Box as a "no-holds-barred examination of two core stories that live within me. One belongs to the South, the other to the North. The only thing they have in common is that they happened to the same person. They both explore the theme of unconditional love in completely different realms : the romantic and the revolutionary, and the tension between the two, ultimately asking where self-love fits in." 

In a 2012 Cultch interview with Sarah Marsh she refers to the piece as a "lament", which is what always lives on after love's loss. If so it's lament wrapped in a confection akin to the opening night cream puffs served up at show's end. The performance put me to mind of Englishman Horace Walpole's dictum of some 150 years back : "Life is tragic to those who feel, and comic to those who think." Blue Box is a retrospective on Aguirre's tragic teen-age resister years as reconstructed through a mid-life memory that always has an eye for comic effect. 

Ambitious stuff : does it work ?  The overlay of memories is brilliant in its time-shifts, its place shifts, its character shifts. One must listen ever-so-carefully to discern whether the airport being talked of is LAX with horny memories of the chicano actor or a high-Andes mountain pass airstrip where Resister Husband and his unabashedly asexual wife Aguirre are dropping surreptitiously out of the night under Pinochet's radar. Why an asexual marriage? As a freedom fighter "having a personal life is an act of treason" she explains -- it opens one up to revelation of resister secrets under torture.

Said chicano, meanwhile, is given the moniker Vision Man throughout the piece because he reminds Aguirre of a description from a dream vision brought to her, she believes, by her dead grandmother. (No coincidence that mystic mythologist Joseph Campbell numbers among her favourite authors.) After a somewhat awkward opening prologue where she complains that Nordic North American women have cobwebs on their bodies where vaqueros should giddy-up instead, Aguirre settles into her "routine" that is anything but. 

For the rest of the show she flips between competing memories. Such as one of an ex-Nazi blue-eyed Argentinian secret police stalker vis-a-vis another, this one of a wild and sexually explicit tryst in her car at Spanish Banks in Vancouver. Along the way she tells us eyes dilate primarily in two conditions : sexual arousal and raw fear. Thus she commands what she describes as the hummingbird in her heart to die at the Argentine border at age 20 so as to not betray her fear. Later she wishes this same metaphorical bird to take a wee breather when she falls, for the umpteenth time, for the unfaithful t.v. chicano charmer. Truly he's a beaut. He yells out to her under a 50-foot Hollywood Blvd. billboard of himself : "Yo, Carmen, be sure to catch the show tonight, it's all about me...!"

Take-aways from this show :  Blue Box proves an old rule -- matters of the heart cannot be explained. In the words of Kentucky novelist Walker Percy, memories need to be "discharged", like a storage battery, because they are "gone and grieved over and never made sense of." Directed by Brian Quirt of the theatre company Nightswimming, Blue Box succeeds in its discharge through Aguirre's imaginative and inventive monologue. 

Revolutions aren't "romantic" because they're politically doctrinaire. But they are intellectually and emotionally passionate times, no question. The fears her rebel mentor Rafael taught her to overcome through acts of will I can only marvel at, not once having been a prairie mile nevermind a hair-breadth near such angst and danger.

Later-life affairs with drop-dead gorgeous actors, for their part, are both romantic and emotionally passionate, true, but "intellectual" and "doctrinaire", hardly. 

Somewhere along those co-existing continuums Carmen Aguirre spins an intriguing and engaging tale from her heart. At times dramatically uneven, it nevertheless engages the audience, particularly the two dozen or so who joined her in some impromptu salsa dancing on stage late in the show as well as the numerous standing-o enthusiasts at curtain call. 

Who gonna like : As we exited the Revue Stage, two late-middle-age men aside us chatted. "What the fuck was that all about?" one demanded of the other. "Do you think it really happened that way?" I had to chuckle as the single affirmative word "Yes!" crossed my mind. The line between "fact" and "actual" may blur on occasion, but never the core "truth" Aguirre acts out. 


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