With recriminations flaring up as the wildfires die down, it’s a sadly appropriate moment for Southern California to receive the Teatro de los Andes production of “En Un Sol Amarillo,” (In a Yellow Sky) an impressionistic documentary account of the “yellow sun” (blurry thoughts) occasioned by the devastating Bolivian earthquake of May 1998 and its aftermath. Play’s development process results in more distancing than was intended, but the testimony is heartbreaking, and the theater games and pantomime speak louder than words.
Method of helmer/author Cesar Brie and company resembled that of Tectonic Theater Project’s investigation of the Matthew Shepard murder in Laramie: Arrive at a community in crisis, insinuate your way into its everyday life and elicit stories that can be woven into a play. Teatro de los Andes interviewed dozens of residents of the agrarian communities hardest hit, marveling as townspeople rallied together while millions of aid dollars went astray. As Brie puts it, “in every earthquake, disconnection, egoism and stinginess coexist with solidarity.”
Result is a patchwork quilt of equal measures requiem and reformist zeal. Anecdotes of desperate rescue efforts — few coming to happy ends — share the stage with abuses of power: A captain punishes a looting lieutenant, only to molest a passing villager afterward. Troupe assumes a governmental voice to explain, with stinging irony, that rebuilt peasant housing used the exact same adobe that led to disaster during the quake.
Yet twin strains of communal support and official corruption coexist awkwardly in the course of the show’s brief 70 minutes, and never quite coalesce into a point of view, beyond the inarguable (but unstartling) conviction that humans need to do a better job anticipating and reacting to natural catastrophes.
Following three or four individual stories through to the end, as did “The Laramie Project,” might have packed even more power.
Moreover, while villagers’ testimony seems unimpeachable, TV newsmen are presented a shade too fatuously for comfort, and the reassuring address of a visiting el Presidente is Bunuel-worthy in its absurdity (“Short people will get high heels, and tall people will be beaten!”). These portraits don’t inspire confidence in the show’s reporting faithfulness. Merchants of misery could have been more effectively skewered verbatim. If the troupe attempted to obtain the rationalizations (and maybe repentance?) of representatives of Bolivian authority, no such evidence appears on the Douglas stage.
What does appear is often excitingly theatrical, a celebration as much of the troupe’s skills as the peasants’ indomitability. The black box stage is decorated with ropes on pulleys hoisting a chair, table, suitcase and (most effectively) an empty picture frame, objects made to soar or come to earth to evoke natural and man-made chaos. Staging techniques are reminiscent of the eclecticism of Richard Foreman or, going back aways, Bread and Puppet Theater. But the avant garde has been so marginalized (or co-opted) in recent years that to current audiences, everything old may well seem new again.
Non-Spanish-speaking patrons are warned that best seating is on the far sides, where one’s field of vision can simultaneously encompass the action and the translation supertitles overhead left and right. Center seaters are torn uncomfortably between screens and actors for 70 headachy minutes.