Four rooms in a set that never stops spinning, its props constantly changing to represent different milieus. Four actors who inhabit lovers, dreamers and workers, desperate for lives of dignity and meaning.
These are the basic elements of "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal," a tour de force production by Argentinean auteur Mariano Pensotti. The show, the last in this year's stellar global-themed Out There series at Walker Art Center, closes Saturday in its too-brief Minneapolis run.
"Animal" has a long running time, checking in just under two hours without intermission. But this mesmerizing work is worth the sit. It has a palpable, churning power that recalls a film. Worlds materialize and de-materialize on the turntable set as actors walk from one time and experience (scenes are marked by dates) to the next.
The show charts the lives of a group of people -- I almost wrote "characters" but the acting company is so superb, you forget their craft -- during a decade in Argentina. Their lives are changed by macro and micro issues, including the economic collapse of their country.
Pablo, for example, receives a severed hand in the mail. Haunted by it, he spends the next decade trying to find the source of the hand, interviewing a mortician and a palm reader, among others.
A city-dwelling young woman discovers that her father has a parallel family in the countryside. She spies on them and gradually comes to understand more.
Dispersal is one of the themes of "Animal," as characters move to find their destinies. On a couple's trip to France, one partner cheats, ending the relationship. An aspiring filmmaker goes to Hollywood and his dreams get deflated.
Throughout the show, people fall in and out of love and lust. Other things, good and bad, happen in their lives, including a miscarriage, an abortion and some odd jobs (one is hired to play Mary Magdalene in a Holy Land theme park).
The production sometimes has a sardonic edge, with plenty of irony. Still, Pensotti never settles for surface investigations of his subjects. He goes to the heart of people he clearly respects.
The company of actors -- Pilar Gamboa, Javier Lorenzo, Santiago Gobernori and María Inés Sancerni -- is fabulous. Taking turns narrating as their Spanish is translated into English surtitles, they put on a bravura display of talent, using physical and vocal gestures and just a few props to seamlessly play a town's worth of characters.
Their difficult past seems not so far away from our painful present, as young Americans still stuck in the Great Recession move back home or search tirelessly for work.