CHILE CON CARNE by Carmen Aguirre (Alameda). At the Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). Runs to April 14. $22-$29, Sunday pwyc. 416-504-9971. See listing. Rating: NNN
Carmen Aguirre has emerged as one of Canada's most important voices - her 2011 memoir Something Fierce won last year's Canada Reads - so it's fascinating to revisit her 1999 solo show, Chile Con Carne, a remarkable play about the immigrant experience.
It's 1975, and eight-year-old Manuelita (Paloma Nuñez) is living in Vancouver with her parents, who have fled Pinochet's Chile as refugees and soon embark on a hunger strike to bring attention to the situation there. Manuelita tries to fit in at school, wearing a ratty blond wig to hide her dark hair and trying to befriend white classmates who think she's mute.
She's just as happy, though, perched in a big cedar tree that's about to be chopped down. And soon she uses the same political tactics she's learned from her parents and their supporters to get her newfound friends to save the tree.
Aguirre beautifully captures a child's perspective on larger events, and some details ring painfully true, such as Manuelita's disappointment at not getting the "right" Barbie doll and the way her defeated father's voice changes when he's being interviewed by the media. The depiction of how political activists band together forms one of the play's strongest themes.
Nuñez, who's got the energy of a sparkplug, makes Manuelita's wants and needs palpable while letting us grasp what's going on around her.
Marilo Nuñez's direction is uneven, however. A 70s soundtrack is used effectively between scenes to evoke the era, and she also makes good use of tree stumps as props.
But it's overkill to use video of newsreels and projections, particularly of Manuelita's grandmother. And a playful and haunting bit of shadow puppetry at the start could have become a motif to help bridge the changes in Manuelita's life.
Instead, it's used once and abandoned, which seems as wasteful as cutting down a tree.