By Annette Hinkle
History would indicate that during times of oppression, poets, writers and other artists go underground.
But that doesn’t mean they go away.
The most creative members of restrictive societies have been known to alter their messages in troubled times, finding new ways of expression that are, in actuality, veiled criticism of the social order. Love songs, paintings, poems, even puppets can become analogies for brutal regimes with hidden meaning that only the wise can decipher.
In her new two character play, “La Cueca” New York City based writer and actress Andrea Goldman explores the notion of metaphor and oppression through one of the most common and seemingly innocuous forms of the human relationship — marriage.
But the subtext of “La Cueca” makes it clear that the play could just as easily be about the relationship between a citizen and a country. In fact, the play is based on the brutal regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet who ruled Chile with an iron fist from 1974 to 1990.
The name of the play is taken from the national dance of Chile. A courting dance, la cueca is performed by a man and a woman. But under Pinochet’s rule, so many men “disappeared” at the hands of the government, the women began dancing la cueca alone as a subtle form of protest.
This weekend, “La Cueca” will have its premiere at Solar, an East Hampton gallery now celebrating its 10th anniversay that focuses on Latin American art. Set in the stifling setting of an underground bunker where they are imprisoned, during the course of the 45-minute play, Sonia (Goldman) and Howard (Abraham De Funes) tread on the difficult territory of their 15 year marriage — including betrayal, the loss of a child, and the uncertainty of the other’s love.
“They both were put in this bunker because of what they did,” explains Goldman. “The sins of their own marriage could’ve been enough to get them there — and they’re running out of air.”
“These are things that bury a couple,” she adds. “The question is, can you get back to where you were and do it all afresh?”
Goldman point out that the same could be asked of a country and its people in the aftermath of a brutal regime.
“The play does hit surrealism and metaphor, but it’s grounded,” she explains. “We never say ‘Pinochet’ in the play, but you hear his voice on the radio. There are different elements in the performance experience that give the essence of oppression.”
Goldman chose to premiere “La Cueca” in East Hampton because of Solar’s gallery space, which she feels will enhance the play’s effects. She explains that part of the experience is to make audience members feel as if they are in the bunker with the couple. Lighting and other elements in Solar’s downstairs gallery area will be designed to enhance the feeling of isolation, making the play more of a performance piece than it would be in a traditional theater.
“This play wouldn’t work in a huge auditorium,” says Goldman. “It’s about the suffocation and claustrophobia — I want people to feel they’re living through it and not watching from the outside.”
“I want the audience to feel like they’re being buried alive.”
The inspiration for “La Cueca” can be traced to 2003 when Goldman spent a year studying literature at the University of Santiago in Chile. There, she came into contact with many creative people who had strongly opposed Pinochet.
“I was working with a lot of poets, professors, novelists or those who had been in exile and had come back,” recalls Goldman. “One woman was telling me that she had lived in the same building as the man who had tortured her and she saw him all the time in the elevator.”
“I was interested in what happened to the writers and artists during the Pinochet period and how language and art changes under regimes,” says Goldman. “I was fascinated by the period.”
While Goldman came to Chile with a bit of knowledge about the Pinochet years, the reality of how people were coping on a day to day basis in Chile in the aftermath of the regime shed new light on the subject.
“I lived with a family who was pro-Pinochet,” says Goldman. “They felt life under [Salvador] Allende was horrible, they couldn’t get basic food, like bread or eggs.”
“So I lived with this family that supported him, and for me that was so strange,” she adds. “At the university I worked with writers — most of whom were exiled and were against Pinochet.”
Goldman quickly came to realize that for many people, there was a sense, not only of justification, but of denial about Pinochet’s regime as well. The woman of the house where she lived, for example, didn’t believe any of the stories Goldman brought home from the university.
“She thought they were making them up,” recalls Goldman. “Even when they found current evidence, like bones, she would say it was media propaganda, and ‘our economy is so much better now.’ She still believed in what Pinochet did and felt he did the right thing for the country.”
“I’m neutral so I listened to both sides,” adds Goldman. “To live with them was interesting.”
Eventually, it struck Goldman that at a basic level, there really isn’t much difference between the machinations of lovers in turmoil and those of a political regime and its people.
“After I had been in a number of relationships, it occurred to me that lies and the pressure of a government can be like a relationship,” she says. “So I decided to look at relationships like that.”
For audiences, experiencing “La Cueca” at this point in time may evoke thoughts of other regimes — including the one overthrown last week by the Egyptian people and those now under scrutiny in several more Arab countries where citizens have, for too long, felt the weight of their own governments pressing down on their human rights.
“I think there’s always periods of time where we find these oppressive regimes,” says Goldman. “Any time countries resort to murder or torture for control, it’s another kind of betrayal … which is what this play’s about.”
“The heart of it is a relationship representing this oppression. These two people trying to talk to each other and unbury themselves — if they want to,” she adds. “It is only after they uncover their past that they can truly discover one another.”
“La Cueca” is presented by The Box Productions and directed by Ben Sargent. It will be performed at Solar (44 David’s Lane, East Hampton) on Friday and Saturday, February 18 and 19 at 7 p.m., and again next weekend on February 25 and 26, also at 7 p.m. Admission is $20 ($18 for senior citizens). The show will be followed by a wine and pisco reception with the cast and director
Pisco Sour – the national drink of Chile
2 oz pisco (brandy distilled from Muscat grapes)
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablesoon sugar
1 egg white
A dash of bitters
Place three ice cubes, pisco, sugar, fresh lime juice, and egg whites in a blender. Whirl until smooth. Serve straight up in an old-fashioned glass with a dash of bitters and a wedge of lime.