Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Chile Con Carne

Paloma Nuñez (photo by Rodrigo Moreno)
The Gringos and Me
by Beat Rice

Chile Con Carne is a solo acted show fuelled by Paloma Nuñez who plays the role of young Manuelita. It is the 70’s, and Manuelita has recently moved to Canada with her family from Chile, when her activist parents had been exiled and blacklisted. Being of elementary school age she struggles to make sense of being in Canada, and at the same time is enamoured by the looks and lifestyles of the surrounding ‘gringos’.  She takes a page out of her parent’s book and fights to save her favourite cedar tree, which is to be mowed down. Through the play we see Manuelita at school with the gringos, at home with the Chilean community, and up in her tree, writing letters to her grandmother, one of her main connections to home. 

We laugh at her amazement by the way North Americans live and sympathize for her as she begs for a Barbie doll.

Manuelita’s childlike observations and discoveries is probably the most delightful thing about the play. Her tragedies and triumphs are all special, and memorable, even though she sometimes wishes they never happened. We laugh at her amazement by the way North Americans live and sympathize for her as she begs for a Barbie doll. Her innocence, shyness, and contrary spunk, make for a truly endearing piece of theatre. The one thing that threw me off the most was the adult cursing and swearing. It was pretty harsh at some moments, and not very innocent - but still very funny. Paloma Nuñez captures Manuelita’s youthful spirit with heart, and just the right amount of ‘little kid voice’.

Part of Manuelita’s story focuses on her daily struggles to fit in at school. With limited English, and a little bit of a weak bladder, she is subject to bullying and humiliation by the people she so desperately wants to assimilate with. At home she is surrounded by like-minded Chileans who fight for their nation even across the borders, and to a mother who tells her that she is 100% Chilean, not Canadian, and that she does not want her to speak any language other than Spanish.  

I wish there was a little bit more of a back-story about the personal political struggles of Manuelita’s parents in Chile. I wanted to know more about what she saw back home. We do see how the conflict has affected her in Canada, and we are left to imagine what her family had to deal with before uprooting to Vancouver. Projections on the set helped with this understanding, as it showed historical footage of rallies and leaders of the time.  The projections worked with the telling of the story as well as the set, which looks like something from a childhood memory; a bold colourful backdrop with a playful tree for the actor to climb. 

Plays with a political backdrop sometimes have the tendency to become lecture-like, or appear as a staged docu-drama. This is NOT THAT. I would like to think of it simply as a story of a very special, spirited young girl, rather than a piece of political theatre with commentary on the military coup in Chile 40 years ago. It is not the statistics of war that will touch your heart, but Paloma Nuñez’s performance as Manuelita that will.

Chile Con Carne runs at the Factory Studio Theatre until April 14
Read also director Marilo Nuñez's first-person piece

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