Super Mario

Since his debut as a novelist in 1963, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa has been surprising the public. Not only does he move with stylistic ease between forms (novels, short stories, criticism, journalism, essays, plays) and genres (political allegories, mysteries, erotica), he wreaks havoc with literary conventions in his fiction and drama. As if linear narrative cannot contain the breadth of his imagination, he manipulates chronology and place, diverges and converges story lines, and overlaps points of view. Although criticized for sacrificing character development on the altar of experimentation, his work is rarely esoteric, since he roots his tales in the concrete details of everyday life.

In one of his best-known novels, 1966's La Casa Verde (The Green House) Vargas Llosa depicts life in the jungles and the small towns of Peru by juxtaposing the perspectives of various characters. He revisits some of the same people in his 1986 drama La Chunga -- most notably, the title's name sake, Chunga, an enigmatic, world-weary woman who runs the bar in which the drama's action takes place.

Set in a squalid watering hole in northern Peru in the Forties, La Chunga is part mystery, part memory play. Act One opens with a quartet of hapless small-time gamblers throwing dice and drunkenly belting out a ditty about "wine, women, and song." Intermittently they stop their game to speculate on the whereabouts of a beautiful young woman named Meche. We learn through a flashback that a snaky pimp named Josefino (one of the gamblers) brought the naive girl into the dive several months ago. Losing at craps, he sold her for 3000 soles to Chunga for one night and Meche has not been seen since.

In a provocative production at Area Stage on Miami Beach, La Chunga is unsparingly cynical -- yet utterly convincing -- about how women can suffer at the hands of men. Assisted by an excellent cast, co-director Maria Rodaz conveys the connections between love, sex, ownership, and power. While the evening will unsettle anyone who has been involved in, or witness to, an abusive relationship, the script, and Rodaz's interpretation of it, does not stop there. Not only does Meche fall prey to macho brutality, she serves as the object of all the characters' fantasies, illuminating just how crucial delusions are in helping Chunga and the men cope with their poverty-stricken lives.

In Act Two, with a tip of the hat to Rashomon, the Kurosawa film about different perceptions of a crime, each of the men elaborates what he thinks happened to Meche as well as what happened between Meche and Chunga, whom the men relentlessly label a dyke throughout the play. Vargas Llosa nimbly shifts the action back and forth between the present and the past, the actual and the imagined. By straddling the boundary between his characters' ideas of reality and the power of their fantasies, the playwright explores the intoxicating correlations between memory, truth, and desire.

Not your average suburban drama, and not easy to pull off with aplomb. Yet Rodaz convincingly juggles time frames and intricate transitions by deftly staging multiple scenarios in the theater's tight quarters. Although extremely narrow, the stage does boast high ceilings and substantial depth, which the director (who designed the gritty set along with her husband John Rodaz) exploits to great advantage: Throughout the evening, she allows the crap game, played during "real" time, to continue upstage to the audience's left. Simultaneously, scenes taking place in the past or in the characters' imaginations unfold at the back of the stage, on a staircase leading to a second level built for this production, and in Chunga's room located on this second tier.

I saw the show during its final preview the night before it officially opened, and some of the transitions seemed labored, lending a schematic feel to the unfurling of the fantasy sequences. Also, while the actors were almost uniformly in sync in their connections to each other, they were still a half-step away from finding the right balance between black comedy and suspense that the script requires. Ultimately, though, none of this diminished the overall impact. In fact, I suspect, given the raw energy of the performances, that by this time in the run such rough edges have been smoothed over.

In recent years Area's artistic director John Rodaz has tended to direct more often than he has appeared on-stage. In this production, however, he has the chance to demonstrate his considerable acting skills in a chilling portrayal of the bully Josefino. Prowling the stage with feral menace the character is a brown shirt in waiting, each moment comporting with Chunga's description of him as a petty fascist: "When I would disagree with you," she says, "out would come your knife, boots, and fist."

The rest of the cast includes accomplished Hispanic actors who appear regularly in Spanish-language theater yet who rarely perform in English. Sergio Campa-Perez is especially memorable, blustering his way around the stage as the lewd, loud-mouthed El Mono, whose posturing masks his lusts: As a child he raped the girl next door and now he longs to be spanked, tied up, you name it, as a punishment for his deed. In a darkly humorous fantasy scene that ranks as one of the standouts of the evening, Meche and Chunga oblige him.

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