CHICHO by Augusto Bitter (Pencil Kit Productions/Aluna Theatre/Theatre Passe Murraille). At Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson). Runs to March 24..
CHICHO by Augusto Bitter (Pencil Kit Productions/Aluna Theatre/Theatre Passe Murraille). At Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson). Runs to March 24. $17-$33. 416-504-7529, passemuraille.com. See listing. Rating: NNN
This opening declaration, delivered while silhouetted against a bank of surging lights, contains within it the nucleus of Chichos overarching concerns: language, sexuality, identity, performance.
Tracking its titular Venezuelan-Canadians struggle to come to terms with a series of contradictory convictions, actor/playwright Augusto Bitters wildly kinetic monodrama is about different kinds of shame (his and ours) and shamelessness (his, gloriously his). Its about what we know, dont know, and should know about Venezuela. Its about the elusiveness of fixed definitions of home or beauty.
Who am I? How does sexuality manifest in diverse cultural contexts? How does racial tension impose itself on otherwise idyllic relationships? What does it mean to express longing in one language versus another?
Directed by Claren Grosz, Chicho considers such existential quandaries through a dizzying, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink array of performance styles while still making room for a testimonial on the curative powers of Vicks VapoRub and a monologue delivered by an avocado.
Theres dance, dialogue and a burlesque lesson on Venezuelas catastrophic current situation. Theres also plenty of Spanish, but most of it gets translated through an inventive variety of methods, and the little that doesnt constitutes an extra little treat for those who understand it. The sequences involving audience participation slyly balance confrontation with accommodation, though there is one point when Bitter makes the tactical error of assailing the audience with questions too complicated to generate a meaningful response.
Alternating between stripteases and frantic re-dressing, Bitters costume shifts repeatedly from school uniform to an ensemble consisting only of tiny denim shorts and a fetching red beret. With his broad mouth and striking eyes, his angular features and lean figure, his sass and showmanship, Bitter at times resembles Prince, at others, Joel Grey.
Whether conveying anxiety, ecstasy or indigestion, Bitter is a marvel, so much so that its tempting to review his performance instead of his play.
As Chicho moves into its second half, Bitters sleek transitions and beguiling delivery continue to dazzle, but the plays protracted duration exposes dramaturgical deficiencies.
Theres a shapelessness to Chicho, tropes repeat without accruing urgency, and we begin to realize that for all Bitters vulnerability and reflexivity, theres a lot we dont know about his character.
If the play were briefer, such lapses might have seemed intriguingly enigmatic, but the 100-minute runtime stirs in us a desire to get a deeper sense of the particulars of Chichos life beyond scattered, vaguely detailed references to geography, family, religion or romance.
By the end you may find yourself exhausted, but you will leave knowing two things: 1) Relentless corruption has brought Venezuela to a critical state that demands attention and action and 2) Augusto Bitter is a performer of unforgettable charisma and versatility.