How we experience the passage of time has always been one of the topics of great art and performance. Add to the list of names those who’ve produced masterful works on the topic one Mariano Pensotti. Argentinian playwright and director Pensotti and his Grupo Marea arrived in Los Angeles this week with a lyrical, funny powerhouse of a stage work, El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco, that is now on stage at REDCAT. The title is taken from the identically titled Of Montreal song, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” but Pensotti’s play is much, much more than a clever wordy pop song. The play and its examination of the lives of four young Argentinians from the period of 1999 to 2009 is about history and the way we live in it while pretending that we don’t. For Pensotti and the four actors that make up his superb cast - Pilar Gamboa, Javier Lorenzo, Santiago Gobernori, and Maria Ines Sancerni – time is not a linear narrative but a circular one that folds in upon itself again and again.
The concept is most viscerally and obviously felt in the genius set design of Mariana Tirantte. The stage for El Pasado consists of a circular platform on a rotating track divided into four equal segments by two perpendicularly placed walls. The stage, and many of the accompanying lights, rotate constantly throughout the two hour performance as the players proceed around the walls from one room to the next. Each change of room moves the narrative between one of the four characters whose lives make up the episodic narrative. These are not necessarily big stories, but small ones told in small pieces. Vicki discovers her elderly father has been living a parallel existence most of his life with two families. Mario dreams of leaving Argentina to become a filmmaker. Laura jumps for one problematic relationship to another, and Pablo discovers a severed hand in his doorway one particular morning.
But while the play makes some reference to the political and historical era in which it is set, these stories are more about the broader themes and obsessions that shape our lives in a broad sense than it is particular cliffhangers or psychologically driven climaxes. For instance the mysterious severed hand that becomes an obsession for Pablo doesn’t destroy everything in his life but becomes a recurrent preoccupation that shapes many things that will happen to him in more subtle ways. Much of the dialog in the play comes in the form of narration where each of the four players take turns moving from room to room describing the mindset, action, and motivations of the others involved in the actual events of each scene. Roles are taken up and abandoned as a hand-held microphone is passed from player to player, narrator to narrator. (The play is entirely in Spanish but there are supertitles on either side of the rotating stage.) The scenes are roughly in chronological order although the overall sequence jumps backward and forward in small increments. And while the rotation alternatively speeds up and slows down, the work never loses the sense of motion and flow.
The play is supremely funny at times. There are some wonderful spoken internal monologues that ignite huge reactions in the audience such as when Pablo is filled with paranoid fears about the morgue worker he questions while gathering information he thinks may be germane to the hand he keeps in the fridge at home. And there are some flashes of insight as well, but most winningly, Pensotti and his cast never give in to sentimentality. There are two brief moments of intersection in these four lives, but those episodes provide more of a sense of symmetry than of psychological insight. El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco is steeped in modern life – a love of media and an awareness of the hyperdetermined, intertextual way that people make up the selves they are. The past here is never absent, and it is never a source of overarching predetermination. However, it glows in the dark, just out of direct sight altering events in an almost imperceptible way yet leaving its certain mark. This is great, engaging theater and if you're interested in such a thing at all, you should see one of the two remaining performances before it is gone. Be advised there were no tickets left to be bought at the window before Friday’s show so get them now.