Mariano Pensotti's El pasado es un animal grotesco (The Past Is a Grotesque Animal), running at the Public Theater as part of its Under the Radar Festival, as well as P.S. 122's COIL Festival, examines the sorrows and joys in the lives of four central characters over the course of ten years.
Part soap opera and part absurdist comedy, Pensotti's script (running nearly two intermissionless hours) has its excesses and consists primarily of narrated action (in Spanish with English supertitles), which, combined, can make the experience somewhat trying. Thankfully, the Argentine production -- directed by the playwright -- boasts a quartet of talented performers in terrifically detailed turns as more than a dozen characters.
For instance, Juan Minujin deftly brings a sense of passion and confusion to his portrayal of Mario, a young artist trying to find his way in the world, even as he finds the right level of dimwitted machismo in his portrayal of a Palestinian refugee who turns up at a Christian theme park in Buenos Aires playing Christ. This character ultimately becomes one of the many lovers that Laura (imbued with both indomitability and heartbreaking vulnerability by Maria Ines Sancerni) has as she journeys from her rural hometown in Argentina to Paris and back again.
Pilar Gamboa brings a similar sensitivity to her central role of Vicky, a young woman who discovers that her father has led a double life, with a second wife and child in the country. The actress also finds just the right amount of spiky intensity that makes her portrayal of Dana, Mario's long-term girlfriend, both comedic and touching, while Javier Lorenzo manages to unearth the humanity in the play's trickiest role, Pablo: a man who finds himself soaring to unexpected heights in the advertising business after he discovers a severed hand on his doorstep.
The production moves seamlessly from place to place thanks to a plywood revolve from designer Mariana Tirantte that's in almost continuous motion and lit exquisitely by designer Matias Sendon.
-- Andy Propst
The narrative centers around Ido (in a gender-bending performance by Kathryn Hunter), a Japanese businessman who comes home one day to find out that his wife and son have been taken hostage by an escaped convict named Ogoro (Glyn Pritchard). After determining that the police will be of no use in saving them, Ido then takes Ogoro's wife and son (played by Noda and Pritchard, respectively) hostage, hoping to barter for the safety of his family, or failing that, to enact revenge.
Hunter has an impressive flexibility that aids in the stylized movements enacted by her character. Noda, who cross-dresses to play the part of Ogoru's wife, brings a heart-wrenching vulnerability to his role. Pritchard switches seamlessly from the older Ogoro to the younger one, and also gives life to a brash but inept policeman. Rounding out the cast is Clive Mendus, whose primary role is as the police officer in charge of the case that has escalated into two hostage situations.
As playwright (along with co-writer Colin Teevan), Noda examines the ways that cycles of violence are perpetuated, which has pointed contemporary resonances in our post-9/11 world. The first part of the play emphasizes the absurdly comic nature of the story, with the characters' penchant for rhyming having a Dr. Seuss-like quality.
The shift into darker material is inevitable, but could be handled more smoothly. Part of the problem is the pacing, which starts to drag as the action becomes more repetitious. But even though not everything works, the play remains both compelling and thought provoking.
-- Dan Bacalzo
To be sure, there's a certain visceral thrill as the first chords of Jimmie Marlowe's music are heard and a voiceover describes, in detail, the tragic end that Theresa will meet. Equally promising is an early song in which Theresa describes her dissatisfaction with her life (lyrics are by the show's other principal performer, Kevin Townley).
But it's not long before the show simply settles into a series of loosely connected numbers in which style trumps substance. A flashback to Theresa's battle with scoliosis as a child takes a surreal turn as Townley, playing a doctor, dons what looks like a grotesque, alien-like gas-mask. In another sequence, Cheek climbs to the top of a ladder and straddles it (painful phallic symbolism) before allowing a huge flowing skirt to descend, under which the company cavorts to indicate sexual frenzy.
Beyond Cheek's fiercely committed performance, the show's assets are its astonishing physical production, which includes Nick Benacerraf's environmental scenic design which turns the space into a club, complete with booze-stocked shelves, Adam Franz's energetic concert-like lighting design, and Alex Koch's video design which marvels throughout, backing each section of the piece with lavishly conceived and terrifically individualized movies.
-- Andy Propst