Review

'Mateluna' at REDCAT: Part high-concept political drama, part true-crime mystery

Few people sitting down at REDCAT this week for the U.S. premiere of Guillermo Calderon’s play “Mateluna” will have heard of Jorge Mateluna. But after seeing this theatrical exploration of truth and deception in life and art, none likely will hear the Erasure song “A Little Respect” without thinking of him.

Calderon, a widely admired Chilean playwright, director and screenwriter, participated in a talkback after Thursday night’s performance with his cast of seven, who developed “Mateluna” with him. (“It is a little unfair that I call myself the director because it’s so collective,” he said.) They explained that they wove “A Little Respect” throughout the production to forge a synaptic association in their audiences’ brains. Not only is “A Little Respect” a really good song, they said, a really catchy song — but for a lover’s plaint it communicates a strange joy. For many gay people, it has become an anthem of hope.

It would be easy to associate Jorge Mateluna with a painful song, Calderon said. Mateluna is in prison in Chile, sentenced to 16 years for a bank robbery he said he didn’t commit. A video in which an eyewitness identifies him in a lineup was a key piece of evidence in the trial. The play’s narrator — a role rotated among the cast members, who hide their faces under colorful hoods for much of the performance — plays this video for the audience. (The video and the performance are in Spanish, with projected English supertitles.)

Having worked with Mateluna in developing the 2013 play “Escuela,” the narrator says, the cast initially didn’t believe that he robbed the bank. The Mateluna they knew, a former guerrilla and expert on bomb-building who trained anarchists in safe houses and underground “schools” in the 1980s’ military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, was motivated by his passion for justice — not by money.

But the video evidence seemed incontrovertible. Puzzled and stricken, the narrator says, the company set out to write a play exploring Mateluna’s relationship to violence, hoping to discover what could have driven him.

What follows is a sequence of reenactments and video clips documenting the company’s efforts to dramatize this question. The darkly humorous excerpts portray hooded anarchists in safe houses grappling with a fundamental contradiction: Those who love peace must be willing to fight for it. Each performance ended, the narrator tells us, in a cascade of stage blood. None quite expressed what they wanted to say about Mateluna.

This production shares a preoccupation with the purpose of art with Calderon’s previous plays (“Diciembre,” “Neva” and “Villa + Discurso,” which also played at REDCAT). In the tradition of Theodor Adorno’s assertion that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Calderon is dubious about the possibility of commemorating human suffering. Maybe art can only sentimentalize tragedy. The same theatrical devices that artists use to expose injustice can be used to hide the truth. Does art do more harm than good? Why, then, are people so compelled to create it?

And what if Jorge Mateluna didn’t actually rob the bank?

These questions led Calderon and his actors to undertake their own research into the evidence. From performers they morph into detectives, poring over the trial transcripts and security-camera feeds and filming a re-creation of the getaway scene. The play turns from a conceptual experiment to a gripping true-crime exposé a bit like a “Dateline” segment — and back again. There is the hope that this production could provoke the Chilean supreme court to reopen Mateluna’s case, adding a wrinkle to the already complex dynamic between life and art.

There are more layers here, theatrically and conceptually, than I’ve been able to convey. (For instance, some of the plays that the cast “reenacts” were never actually produced.) Although high-concept political drama can sometimes come across like a lecture or a sermon, “Mateluna” never does. The cast members, especially when they finally show their faces, are so persuasive and relatable that the audience feels included in — even essential to — the show.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Tickets: $12-$25

Info: (213) 237-2800 or redcat.org

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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