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Santiago (review)

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2007
pp. 119-121 | 10.1353/tj.2007.0065

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As the audience entered REDCAT's 250-seat staggered auditorium to witness the second visit of Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani to Los Angeles, the actors were lighting candles and cleaning the semi-lit stage. The deliberateness of their movements suspended the moment in a liminal space between reality and fiction, as this scene functioned both as staged action and ritual cleaning. This single moment powerfully communicates Yuyachkani's vision of popular theatre as an activity that, in the process of merging art and life, requires a semi-religious devotion. Indeed, in its thirty-five-year trajectory as one of the most socially committed Latin American theatre collectives, the group has often engaged with religiosity as a crucial player in Peru's turbulent political history.

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Figure 1
Augusto Casafranca (Armando, the Mayordomo) and Amiel Cayo (Rufino, the Indian) in Santiago. Photo: Elsa Estremadoyro.

In the play Santiago, the character of Saint Santiago lends greater political dimension to the company's questioning of post–civil war Peruvian identity. Santiago becomes an icon of past and recent atrocities against indigenous and mestizo populations. True to the meaning of their name—yuyachkani is Quechua for "I am thinking / I am remembering"—the group's latest play merges dream with reality, past with present, as the memories of the earlier peninsular Reconquest allegorize both the Spanish Conquest of America and the recent guerilla war that ravaged the country for decades.

As program notes explain, during la Reconquista, the figure of Santiago was transformed from a peaceful follower of Christ into the Moor-slaying Patron of Spain; in the Conquest, he became a killer of Indians. Ironically, Catholicism's colonizing force turned Santiago into the holy patron of many Peruvian towns, venerated by the largely native and mestizo population. Through a set of haunting images and precise expressionist acting, this production suggests that, although forgotten by most Peruvians, a syncretic connection between Santiago and the Andean god Yllapa motivated this odd veneration. In fact, Yuyachkani stages the failure of this veneration, thus generating more questions than answers.

The main action of the play takes place over a few hours within the confines of a church, centering on the efforts of church caretakers to prepare the statue of Santiago for an annual procession. Due to the war, these three caretakers—the only survivors of the town—have been unable to honor their patron saint for many years. For the Hispanic Mayordomo and his mestiza employee, Bernardina, the procession would restore order and bring meaning back to their lives. Yet, for the subaltern indigenous character, Rufino, to honor Santiago would betray his cultural identity. Rufino thus decides to adopt the language, masks, and clothes of an Andean trickster deity in order to betray the attempt to restage the procession.

The brilliance of the work resides not only in the mix of pathos and irony, but also in the juxtaposition of this simple plot with a layer of magical realism. The Christian mestiza Bernardina, who prays to Santiago and rejects any syncretism between him and Yllapa, dreams that the Mayordomo becomes Santiago and that the Indian Rufino becomes the archetypal Moor. Ironically, in her dreams the Moor and Santiago engage in long discussions and duels that suggest that the massacre and subjugation of the native population have been facilitated by Christianity, and that the equation between Moors and Indians has been pivotal in this process. Although many of the puns articulated in Spanish and Quechua are lost in the English supertitles, Yuyachkani actors deliver their battles of wit with such epic tone, and their physical fighting with such clear corporeal language, that the tension translates superbly.

The reconstruction of Santiago's processional float undoubtedly conveys the perpetual tension between these archetypal characters. In Yuyachkani's staging, Santiago rides a white horse whose front legs are about to step on the Moor lying underneath. However, since the caretakers cannot find the statue of the Moor, they forcibly tie Rufino, the Indian, under the horse-riding saint's statue. Playing with tempo gradually transforms this physically enacted scenario into a tableau vivant, instilling this image with due tragic significance. Not only were the Indians massacred by the Spanish...

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