Written and directed by Aldo Pantoja
Through May 12 at Single Carrot Theatre
Bow down on one knee or two-those are the options the Spanish offered Atahualpa (played by Félix Guardia), the last Sapa Inca ruler of the Inca empire, when the colonizing Catholic conquistadores arrived in what is now Peru in the early 16th century. He can renounce his gods and be baptized in the name of the one true God, or he can decline this enlightening invitation and be held prisoner as the Spanish wipe out the Inca from the land. Atahualpa, in so many words, stoically tells the Spaniards where to stick their God. Alrighty then, two knees it's gonna be.
The above scene falls early in writer/director Aldo Pantojo's The VIP, a grandiose dramatization of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement's (MRTA) 126-day-long occupation of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima from December 1996 to April 1997. And at first the scene feels odd. The play opens with the sound of a man crying alone in the dark. When the house lights come on, Lalo (Carlos del Valle) sits center stage on a cross that divides Single Carrot's space into four quadrants where the audience sits. Lalo is one of the hostages. It's the 126th day of his captivity. It's the day a series of explosions are going to enable Peruvian special forces to breach the embassy. And soon Lalo's crying is interrupted by hell breaking loose. Bombs sound. Gunfire reports dart from every direction. A ski-masked, camouflage-clad commando and a fellow hostage come to get Lalo. Time to go. A eruption of gunfire, a body falls. No, Lalo yells, the blood on his pants isn't his. Time to go.
Soon Lalo addresses the audience directly, the still-in-shock narrator talking his way through what just happened. Thinking he'd like a change of clothes after the ordeal, Lalo is brought a garment bag that contains his suit, which turns out to be a simple, plain white garment that he pulls over his head as he becomes the translator between the Spanish and Atahualpa in the 16th century. The time shift feels not just surreal but disorienting, and by the time Atahualpa is forced to his knees and his headdress is removed, a chorus of MRTA revolutions has emerged from the wings, some holding machine guns, one holding a guitar, all singing a song in Spanish. And as Atahualpa is stripped of his Incaness, he puts on the attire of the revolutionary, the cargo pants, the red-and-white bandana that covers the face, and, finally, the machine gun. That which is forced down will rise up.
Pantoja's decision to pair colonialism and radicalism is one of many parallels-English and Spanish, the past and the present, the personal and the political, language sung and language spoken-that gives the smoothly bilingual The VIP an at-times profound ambition. It's not merely going to offer an account of an historical event, as the facts of the story are quickly assayed. Of the hundreds at the ambassador's residence at the time of the MRTA takeover, 72 hostages are left after women, children, the elderly, and the less important are released as a sign of good faith. The MRTA band's leader, Cerpa (a fantastic Daniel Douek), calls for the release of hundreds of political prisoners, or hostages will be killed. Those hostages that remain-Lalo, Pedro (William Dalrymple), Mario (Eric Paul Boelsche), Japanese ambassador Aoki (Francis Cabatac)-are high-ranking members of the government. They're good bargaining chips. They matter. They're VIPs.
And they're put through the ringer. One revolutionary, Melisa (Natalia Ballestero), likes to psychologically torment the prisoners, walking through the room and suddenly pointing her weapon at them, sneaking through the room while they're dreaming of better days, and sticking her firearm against their heads so that they wake up wondering if they're about to die. Fortunately, Red Cross representative Mark (Paul Diem) negotiates bringing food, water, chemical toilets, and bed rolls. Fortunately, the archbishop (Diem again) is able to smuggle in a Bible and guitar for Christmas. Fortunately, the escape raid ends with the hostages free, the MRTA members captured and summarily executed.
Though Single Carrot produced Pantoja's La Muñeca during its first season, The VIP still has some of the same issues as first novels and movies. It's a tad overlong, sometimes slow-moving (about two hours over two acts, with an intermission), and dominated by exposition. Granted, it's as much a history lesson as a drama, so it's understandable. And it allows Pantoja to zero in on what feels like The VIP's main concern: people in contact with the ideology of their oppressors.
Religion casts a long shadow over the play, and Ryan Haase's ingenious set design-the stage's cross is flanked by sheets of distressed fabric-gives the play's entire setting the mood of an old church. The Bible, the word of God transcribed on the page that Atahualpa rejects, becomes a vital tool in the escape raid's planning. Religion twists itself around power, and power around religion to control people, while the people themselves-from Aoki to Cerpa-frequently reveal disarmingly simple humanism: the ingenuity of repurposing water bottles into lanterns; the husband who will do for his wife. Throughout, musical interludes deliver emotional clarity and complexity to the dramatized scenes. The VIP blossoms into moments of arresting, difficult beauty. People are capable of so much under duress, but what put them there is never so easily identified as it may have seemed at first.
And if that intentional ambivalence is what Pantoja is driving at, it's an effectively familiar unease. The VIP is practically a classical tragedy, complete with a catalog of human flaws on display. It's a play that's aware that solidarity's idealism can be diluted by individual mendacity, and that displays of state power can be as impudently motivated as teenage cruelty. And since catharsis doesn't come easy, sometimes the only way to deal with the unspeakable is to transpose it into song.