America through the lens of political exiles

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By Doug Deuchler

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The family in Andrea Thorne's semi-autobiographical play Pinkolandia at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn can never go home again. They are Chilean exiles who fled the fascist military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in 1973. It's now 1982 and the family of four struggles to build a new life in Wisconsin.

Pinkolandia is an ambitious, poetic play, laden with surrealism. It's a gripping production swiftly and forcefully directed by Ann Filmer. A few surreal aspects were blurry or confusing to me. But on the whole, the show is fascinating, presented by a highly skilled ensemble.

The title uses the old derogatory slang term "pinko," which refers to someone sympathetic to Communism or who is perceived to have leftist or socialist tendencies. (Pink is a lighter shade of red.) You may recall Archie Bunker often calling Meathead, his liberal son-in-law, a pinko.

The story belongs to the two young daughters of these displaced Chileans. We don't get inside the heads of the adult characters. The scenes between the sisters are especially strong.

The adult actresses who play the girls, Beny, 12, and Gaby, 9, are highly energized and provide lots of fun. They bring to life a wonderful blend of childlike silliness and anger. Maritza Cervantes portrays know-it-all, defiant Beny; Hannah Gomez is the somewhat naïve, wide-eyed little sister who was born in the United States. Gomez is adept at providing comic relief, defusing some of the tension in the girls' lives.

Gaby finds emotional solace in her bedroom closet. Often children are frightened of dark closets, but Beny and Gaby have extremely vivid imaginations. They retreat into make-believe games to make sense of their family's past. The sisters have established rigorous rules and storylines for the fantasy world they call Closet Land.

The girls are growing up in suburban Milwaukee, where they're seen as outsiders — "not really Americans." Outspoken Beny berates her middle-school peers for their political indifference; when she stages a classroom protest, her classmates call her a "terrorist." 

We witness the effects of the exile on two generations. The once politically active, now beaten-down parents, separated from their extended family, try to shield their girls from the brutality and loss they endured when they were forced to flee their homeland.

Stephanie Diaz is effective as the stoic mom who struggles to keep her family together. She wants to erase their painful past and move on. So she holds her emotional baggage deep within her until she finally lets her guard down and sheds tears in one poignant scene.

The girls' dad, played by Carlos Diaz, is a professor who teaches his daughters to stand up for their rights. 

It's a loving family which enjoys late-night cooking sessions and eating together. 

Uncle Tio, a former Marxist revolutionary, is played by Miguel Nunez as charming and mysterious. Tio is visiting the family, spinning tantalizing tales of heroism in their homeland. His son is among those thousands who "disappeared" during the Pinochet coup in Chile. Nunez also portrays several other characters. 

Nate Wheldon seamlessly interchanges different roles.

Reality becomes overlaid with fantasy, which is often a hallmark of Latino literature. But a few of the magical realist sequences are difficult to fully grasp. There's a growling, talking polar bear who has been forced to leave home because the polar ice caps are melting. So he's an alien fugitive too, of course. But it's not fully clear what we're to make of some of his commentary. Beny has recently read The Diary of Anne Frank, so she's haunted by brutal Nazi officers who have become part of her revolutionary fantasies.

When I first learned about this show I thought it might be preachy and grim, but it's not. It's thought-provoking yet often hilariously funny, too. But so many ideas are flying around, perhaps the plot needs sharper focus. At first the play seems to be a coming-of-age-in-America narrative with a back story about growing up in a family of political exiles, but the point of view is occasionally fuzzy. It did not all come together for me.

Another challenge is that there are fairly hefty chunks of dialogue spoken in Spanish. Sometimes it's obvious what's being said. Yet other times my high school Spanish was inadequate to grasp even the gist of someone's comments. 

Typically, 16th Street Theater opens up their rather intimate performance space with a creative and flexible set. This one, by scenic designer Joanna Iwanicka, incorporates not only a compact kitchen but also various surreal projections and expressionistic lighting by Cat Wilson. Barry Bennett designed the sound.

Wendye Clarendon is the stage manager.

Photo displays and further information on the Pinochet coup in 1973 Chile, as well as a video, are in the lobby and can be viewed either before the performance or during the one intermission.

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