The 26th edition of Walker Art Center’s experimental Out There series is ending on a strong note with Lola Arias’ “The Year I Was Born.”
The Walker series so far has been notable for interesting ideas that have not always been fully realized. Kuro Tanino’s “The Room Nobody Knows,” in which one brother literally merges with and consumes another, was strange and provocative. “Hospital,” the healthcare-themed work from the collaboration of John Malpede’s L.A.-based company with Dutch theatermakers Wunderbaum, was less successful in conception and execution, while Clement Leyes’ “Allege” was a slight piece of clowning.
Arias’ work, a theatrical documentary that runs through Saturday and is well worth seeing, is the best show in this year’s Out There.
Using photographs, projections and personal artifacts to support the testimonies of the nine-member acting company (one member could not be there because of illness), the Chilean theater-maker deals in a deceptively easygoing way with heavy themes. That approach invites us into the stories the actors share about what their parents did during Chile’s harrowing years under the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Like marathon runners, each performer has a number, their respective years of birth, posted on their backs. The show begins with all the players sitting at desks in a classroom, as if awaiting an instructor. As they are called out by their birth years, they rise and run in a circle. All take turns at the microphones to recount their families’ secrets.
What we learn is often wrenching. Some family members committed crimes for the regime. Others have family members who were killed or exiled. In all of it, the actors maintain detachment from their stories. It is almost as if they are reporters, not participants, and they deliver with a wry, matter-of-fact style.
The result, in Rocio Hernandez’s school-style set, is affecting. We feel the emotions that the performers refuse to show. We laugh for them in the rare moments of levity. We feel the pain as one makes a shocking discovery about her father’s true identity.
In some ways, Arias’ work is the theatrical equivalent of a truth and reconciliation commission. It is specific to Chile but has broad applications wherever horrible things have happened. It is a model that could be used to address all types of morally sticky situations. It raises thorny questions: Where are you today on the important moral questions? How will our children and grandchildren judge us?