Theater review: ‘El Pasado Es un Animal Grotesco’ at REDCAT

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The world keeps spinning, relentlessly, though at varying speeds, in Argentine writer and director Mariano Pensotti’s “El Pasado Es un Animal Grotesco” (The Past Is a Grotesque Animal), a hypnotic merry-go-round of story lines performed on a rotating wooden turntable that looks like it was just erected by a few handymen from the corner hardware store.

This often-entrancing collage, which is being presented at REDCAT through Sunday, investigates the destinies of several arty twentysomethings over a 10-year span, from 1999 to 2009. Set in Buenos Aires, the piece travels to different cities (Paris, Rio, Los Angeles) as its characters struggle to come to terms with the setbacks and compromises of mid-30s adulthood, when identity is no longer a game of infinite possibility.

The sensibility is lushly South American, mixing soap opera with surrealism, naturalism with hypertheatricality. (The influence of fellow Argentine writer Julio Cortázar on Pensotti is detectable in the way “El Pasado” hopscotches not just between Paris and Buenos Aires but between stream of consciousness and cinéma vérite.) But the real locale isn’t to be found on any map; Pensotti’s characters actually reside in the gap between dreams and reality.

The narrative focus flits among four characters: Mario, a would-be filmmaker whose passionate relationship distracts from the pain of his stalled professional progress. Laura, the daughter of a butcher, flees to France with money stolen from her father to find a bohemian alternative to her suffocating suburban existence. Pablo, who studied marketing and has been recently dabbling with writing, is thrown for a loop when he discovers a package containing a severed hand outside his door. And Vicky, an attractive yet twitchy young woman, has stumbled upon photographs of her father with a parallel family she knows nothing about. The fates of these characters, which shift abruptly from snail’s pace realism to florid melodrama, are both dramatized and narrated. As one scene ends and another begins, one of the performers grabs a microphone and brings us up to date on what’s been happening in Vicky’s or Pablo’s life as we’ve been keeping tabs on Mario’s or Laura’s. If this description sounds like a staged version of “Days of Our Lives,” the content is far too obsessed with art and memory, time and history to have any place on daytime television.


The ensemble (Pilar Gamboa, Javier Lorenzo, Santiago Gobernori and María Ines Sancerni) possesses both the concentration and fluidity needed to realize Pensotti’s vision. Each character is made flesh and blood, yet there’s a freedom that allows actors to take on additional roles, often with comic abandon. And this informal theatricality has a way of enhancing rather than undermining the naturalness of the production.

Economic and political concerns are insinuated into the action with casual remarks that showcase Pensotti’s flair as a writer, such as the telling description of Mario as the “beloved only child of an impoverished middle class family.” (In this one line, he conveys the paradoxical impact of Argentina’s modern-day financial disaster on its citizens.) Momentous events, such as 9/11, occur as footnotes to personal calamities, yet global history is shown to be inescapable, as the most unlikely characters are plausibly thrown together.

The pacing of the work gets draggy in spots, but there’s a boldness of imagination that’s especially impressive given how quotidian the action can be. “El Pasado” may creep at times, but it never loses its loopy sense of humor.

The scope of concern is so sweeping that one can leave feeling as though a big dollop of life has been served without much accompanying analysis. But as I woke at 4 a.m. with deadline worries infiltrating my dreams, I began reflecting on my own life from 25 to 35 and how circumstances, internal and external, conspired to turn me into what I never set out to be — a professional critic.

Pensotti reminds us that artists and creative types are of the world, not above it. Masters of fate in their own works, they are straining just like the rest of us to keep up with time’s unstoppable flux. If the past can seem like a grotesque animal (the words are from an Of Montreal song), it’s only because as living creatures we’re sentenced to perpetual change.


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--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

‘The Past is a Grotesque Animal’ (‘El pasado es un animal grotesco’), REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, L.A. 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. 3 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $20–$25 (213) 237-2800 or Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Lower: Javier Lorenzo. Credit: Steven Gunther