El Teatro’s “Victor in Shadow” a Rare Gift of Theatrical Joy


by C. Kevin Smith

“I function with my heart, not my head,” says Victor Jara, the subject of “Victor in Shadow,” an exhilarating new production at El Teatro Campesino, in San Juan Bautista. A popular folksinger, activist and theater director who traveled widely to spread his musical message of peace and solidarity, Jara was tortured and murdered by military police following the violent 1973 coup that replaced Salvador Allende’s democratically-elected government with the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet.

This could make for grim material, but as written and directed by Lakin Valdez, who also stars as the charismatic Jara, “Victor in Shadow” plunges the audience into a rich span of the life of a committed artist. Beautifully written, expertly staged (Kinan Valdez is co-director), and shaped by outstanding performances from the actors and onstage musicians, “Victor in Shadow” is a rare gift of theatrical joy.

After a brief dream-like prelude featuring the opening words of Jara’s final poem, the play begins with Jara seated in an interrogation room as a soldier known as the Prince (Anahuac Valdez) asks him questions. When Jara refuses to answer, the Prince grows violent, leaving the floor strewn with overturned chairs and discarded papers

These objects remain on the floor as the scene shifts to an earlier time, when Jara meets Joan (the elegant Leanna Sharp), the young woman who would become his wife. Victor and Joan admire the Rio Mapocho and dance around the wreckage of the previous scene, effectively moving through the future debris of Jara’s torture. The scene’s power derives not only from the stark juxtaposition of two contrasting episodes, but also from the chilling reminder that certain lives are shadowed more by the future than the past

The play’s many subsequent transitions flow smoothly thanks to the sensational musicians of “Victor in Shadow”: Rafael Manriquez (guitar and musical direction), Jorge Tapia (flutes), Chas Croslin (percussion), Fernando Torres (charango) and Ingrid Rubis (piano; Rubis also appears briefly as a student). Throughout the play, the ebb and flow of music functions not so much as background but as the very air the performers breathe. As the story moves back and forth across the timeline of Jara’s brief life, the company brings to life a generous selection of his stirring songs, including “La Molina No Voy Más,” “Las Casitas del Barrio Alto,” and “Plegaria de un Labrador” (English translations are projected during the songs).

The Spanish language is another kind of music, and the play is enlivened by the occasional use of words and short phrases familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Spanish.

Jara was a communist, and through discussions with his wife and their friend Cecelia (Cristal Gonzalez), a sympathetic colleague at the university, we learn something of the political, economic and social tensions in Chile that would turn bloody in the 1970s. Such political discussions could easily be dead-weight in a play, but these scenes are sketched with a light touch that emphasizes the human personalities behind the politics.

On the day of Allende’s election, Jara and his circle rejoice for the promise of justice and social transformation. Benicio (Alfredo Avila), a young student and aspiring journalist eager to become part of Jara’s world, embodies this time of yearning enthusiasm that would quickly turn dark.

“Victor in Shadow” was co-commissioned by La Peña Cultural Center, in Berkeley, where it appeared for a brief run last fall, and the National Performance Network, which in 2009 provided Valdez with funds to travel to Chile to speak with survivors from that era, including Jara’s widow. It is easy to imagine that this authenticity of sources contributed to the emotional depth of Jara and Joan’s relationship as portrayed by Valdez and Sharp. (Sharp also created the play’s eloquent choreography.)

But the reactionary forces arrayed against a man like Jara were simply too powerful. As the Prince, Anahuac Valdez is excellent, despite an occasional tendency to gulp down his lines in moments of heightened intensity. He also excels as a malevolent masked creature/CIA spook who lurks about the stage, making threats on the edges of scenes. (Anahuac Valdez also created the superb lighting design.)

“Victor in Shadow” is so deeply satisfying it seems ungrateful to expect more. If the script is lacking in anything it is perhaps what cannot be found: a more nuanced understanding of Jara’s inner life and conflicts. Valdez faced a paucity of documentary materials, since so much was destroyed after Jara’s death. (His music was banned during Pinochet’s rule.)

What we have are his songs and his legacy of engaged artistry, and that is more than enough. A magical collage of music, dance, stagecraft and story, “Victor in Shadow” showcases the abundant talents of Lakin Valdez (I should not end this review without mentioning that Valdez is a thrilling singer) as well as the collaborative creativity of the entire team behind the play, one that will take its place in El Teatro Campesino’s illustrious history of theatrical productions that engage the mind and the conscience as well as the heart.

Originally published in the Monterey Herald, April 28, 2011. Reprinted by permission.