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October 17, 2017
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

How to play with natural disasters onstage

A scene from Negro Animal Tristeza, stagied Fridays at El Kafka.
A scene from Negro Animal Tristeza, stagied Fridays at El Kafka.
A scene from Negro Animal Tristeza, stagied Fridays at El Kafka.
By Veronica Stewart
For the Herald

Negro Animal Tristeza is a successful experiment in using body language for theatrical effect

Few things are as challenging to portray in theatre as the immediacy of a natural disaster.

Unable to imitate its devastation and sheer magnitude, playwrights must find the essence of what makes it so terrifying and capture the reaction characters might have in the face of such impotence and powerlessness. Negro Animal Tristeza doesn’t only rise to the challenge, but it bases its whole narrative on this experiment.

Written by German playwright Anja Hilling, the play opens with a day in the woods like any other. A group of six people — whose intricate relationships to each other make it difficult to call them friends — decide to pack a basic kit to survive in the wilderness for a few days and camp out in the woods for a weekend. As the night closes in on them, their tense and at times downright violent interactions will set a mood for awkwardness that will last for as long as their barbecue does. But when their barbecue is interrupted by a fire it caused while everyone slept, the mood changes abruptly and intensely. Suddenly the bonds between them become tighter and more fragile all at once, with some of them wanting to save those they now realize they love and others unwilling to do anything other than run for survival.

It is at this point that the play becomes interesting. Up until the fire, its best scene is the one at the very beginning, where all characters move in a sort of block together and set the scene for the woods in a rapid succession of short phrases about what a lovely day it is and how close that deer is standing. But after effectively and even wittily establishing the setting, the flaws in the dialogue become evident. Although some of them are well-crafted, most seem forced, as if at all times the audience was reminded that this is indeed a play and those are actors just saying their lines.

Urgency, smart decisions

However, when the fire hits, the whole dynamic of the play changes. It is when the actors start using their bodies to represent the fire that the staging becomes interesting and well done. Negro Animal Tristeza is a play about the urgency of a body that wants to stay alive in the face of imminent death, which is why the use of said bodies works. The actors’ movements become a language in and of itself, one that is very interesting to try and read. The use of what looks like cork furniture is a very smart staging decision, with the different pieces being used on stage easily moveable for each particular action. Suddenly, everything becomes an extension of the characters’ bodies, and the objects take on the dimensions of jungle gyms at a times, allowing for everyone onstage to exploit their physicality to the maximum potential. The lighting, set in tones of red and orange, sets an appropriate mood while the pianist playing live enthrals the audience and builds tension in the background.

It is this, then, where the strength of the play lies. Not so much in what it says, but in what it chooses to convey through means other than words. As the characters move on stage, their reciting of what is happening during the fire is suddenly not as absurd as their use of similar language in the previous scenes simply because the poetry of it is a much better fit for a scene of those dramatic implications rather than for one representing an everyday conversation. It is in the poetry of life, in the face of death and in the use of the body in the face of danger that Negro Animal Tristeza thrives, as if its natural habitat was none other than a forest burning down.

When and where

Fridays at 8.30pm at El Kafka Espacio Teatral (Lambaré 866). Tickets at 160 pesos. Discounts available.

@verostewart

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