Mariano Pensotti on “El pasado es un animal grotesco,” Coming to OtB This Week

Every year in January, New York turns into a mad-house of contemporary performance and international theater, led off by festivals like Under the Radar at the Public Theater. It’s both a public (with broad coverage and new audiences coming in) and deeply insiderish (on account of the fact its a programming component of a big trade show) affair. Anyway, this year there were more than 40 prominent productions by U.S. and international companies at benchmark festivals in January, and–lucky Seattle!–Mariano Pensotti’s El pasado es un animal grotesco, which comes to On the Boards this week (tickets $25), was one of the three or four shows that made the hit-list. Everyone was talking about this show.

Nearly two hours long, the play follows the lives of four young Argentineans from 1999 to 2009, as the age from post-collegiate twenty-somethings to somewhat more mature, if more troubled, adults. Taking place opposite Argentina’s tumultuous decade of financial crisis and social turmoil, the play offers up a portrait of a generation that’s both a window into a uniquely Argentinean experience as well as all too universal parable about the treacherous path to finding what constitutes a “good life.”

Not only in the play incredibly smart, but the production design is incredible: the show unfolds on a constantly rotating round stage divided into four spaces which are constantly being re-dressed throughout. It’s very critic-y to call something “bravura,” but that’s pretty much the most apt description I can think of four the actors’ performances in this piece. This really isn’t one to miss, and you only have until February 12.

Late last year, I also had the chance to interview Mariano Pensotti, the Buenos Aires-based director and designer of the show.

What is the attraction of live performance for you? In interviews and on your website, you talk about how your work is influenced by literature and visual art and film. This work is inspired both by photographs you collected and the novelistic approach of Balzac. So why a live performance rather than a video or film project, other mediums you work in?

Well, I’m usually interested in creating works that might be a crossover between literature, film and visual arts but always including some live performance aspect. In El pasado es un animal grotesco I was specifically interested in how the past could be retold in the present and how something “ephemeral” such as the past or our memories could be made present in another ephemeral media as the live performance is. Another key point of the project is how to tell epic, ambitious stories that might contain fiction, our personal experiences and socio-political events with minimal resources: just four actors, some old props and a revolving stage… In that context the experience itself of making the performance becomes epic. Our play also deals with the subject of time and the times that go by and I cannot think about another medium where you can have that so strongly present such as in a live performance. Ultimately the play tells the story of four characters during ten years and I had the impression that to see these four actors performing live, nonstop, fighting to make present the past during two hours, to see them tired at the end is like seeing them aging ten years.

In the description of the piece on your website, you wrote of the images that inspired the piece, that “Many seemed to be people from my own generation: A faulty chronicle of a decade.” The past decade has been a challenging one in Argentina. What sorts of experiences do the characters’ stories touch on? Is there a concrete example that you could perhaps share of how something in one of the images inspired the text you developed for the character?

I think the use of the broken pictures was the result of a mixed perception. On one hand there’s a fact that as a young generation in Argentina, a country with perpetual economic and political crises, we had to struggle against a lot of difficulties in our ordinary life. But of course that’s not something that you can relate just to Argentina. On the other hand what interested me more was to discover some common feeling in people from my generation, which is the desire of being someone else, the belief that our lives might be better if we lived somewhere else or that we should become another person different from who we are. Besides the economic crises it probably has some relation to that as a generation we’re the sons of the people who fought to change the society during the ‘70s and who were brutally repressed by the military dictatorship, so in comparison with them we usually feel weak, pointless, without social compromise… as a broken or unclear picture. In that sense my collection of blurred and broken pictures seemed to be a clear metaphor of all that.

In the play I was interested in working with that feeling, which at the end I have the impression is quite universal, and also to place some fiction into a real background to see how social events may affect or not private lives. For example during one of our most terrible recent economic crises, in 2001 and 2002, one of the characters loses his job, his flat and his life change a lot; as opposed to other characters, the same event almost affects him. I had the feeling that at least in Argentine theater there was a lack of relation with political events in recent years, we were much too focused on small family issues, so as a challenge I was interested in dealing with our most recent history, not just in Argentina but also using events such as 9/11 or the Iraq invasion to invent stories. It was much more appealing to work with that in a fiction context rather than to take a distant decade, probably more studied and fictionalized already.

This piece makes use of a rotating set. Where did that idea come from and how does it relate the content of the piece?

In my plays I always try to have sets that work not just as a decoration but rather as a narrative mechanism. I’m also interested in setting a play in a context that might affect the body of the performer as well as the perception of the viewer. In the case of the rotating set conceptually it has clearly to do with the idea of passing time, time that never stops, and the actors go from one small space to the next one while the disc turns around all the time. Narratively speaking, as the play is composed of a lot of small scenes, more than sixty, it helped us to set each of them in a different place making small changes on each space when it is not visible to the audience. Additionally, it creates the visual impression of a long dolly shot from a movie.

The soundtrack and title come from Of Montreal. It’s an interesting choice for a work that explores a uniquely Argentine experience. What appealed to you–beyond the lyrics that provided the title–about their work? And out of curiosity, have any of them seen the piece?

Even if the play is focused on the life of four middle class Argentinians I don’t really have the impression that it explores a uniquely Argentine experience but rather something wider. Anyway, in the globalized world it doesn’t seem so strange that an indie band from the States influences an Argentine author or that a Mexican visual artist gave inspiration to some narrator in Sweden… But it’s true that Of Montreal is not the first band that comes to your mind in Latin America. I really love their records and especially the title song was so related to my intentions with this play. The image of the past as some grotesque animal that changes shape every time you think about it is so close to what happens with the past and the lived experiences when you try to remember them or retell them in the present. The past is always changing. And then the first lines of the song say something like, “The sun is out and melt the snow that felt yesterday, makes you wonder why it bothered”… And it’s a narratively ambitious song, with intense lyrics going on for almost 11 minutes, quite rare for a rock song… I really felt it was close to my intentions for the structure of the play, and I was listening to it a lot while writing the text.

I don’t think any of them have seen the piece so far. We’ve been touring a lot in Europe and Latin America but this is going to be our first time in the United States, so hopefully.

What’s it like creating work like this in Buenos Aires? I’ve been told by other artists that one of the challenges is a lack of infrastructure for supporting ambitious work. Is that your experience? Are there many younger artists–your students at the National University perhaps–who are creating work in Buenos Aires? Other artists whose work you find inspiring or important you’d like a broader audience to know about?

It’s really difficult to develop this kind of work. In Buenos Aires there’s a huge independent theater community and a lot of small venues all around the city, which are part of a long tradition of theater as part of the cultural life. But the state and city support for theater is almost symbolic or it’s just focused on conventional performances for public theaters. From time to time, we can have a co-production with a state theater that allows us to do some more ambitious work, but we usually depend basically on ourselves and in recent times on some international festivals from abroad. The good thing is that there are a lot of people going to theater in Buenos Aires no matter if it’s a big state theater or a tiny independent venue. Right now there are several very interesting artists, and among the people from my generation I feel very inspired by the work of Lola Arias, Federico Leon, Grupo Krapp, and Guillermo Arengo.