As the Wheel Turns

by Hasan Altaf

ScreenHunter_04 Jan. 23 10.16The set design of Mariano Pensotti's El pasado es un animal grotesco (“The Past is a Grotesque Animal” — the title comes, according to Pensotti, from a song by the band Of Montreal) seems at first just a conceit, one of those clever tricks that make a play experimental or avant-garde: The stage is occupied almost entirely by a large, circular platform, partitioned into four quarters, that revolves constantly throughout the performance. The scenes play out in one quarter at a time, for as long as it takes that sliver to disappear from view (the speed seemed variable). The platform works perfectly, even, once it becomes familiar, unobtrusively – the actors never seem dizzy, running from one section to the next without a pause; the sets of each room are changed, added to or subtracted from quickly, out of our sight – but, more importantly, the platform is not just a way of earning avant-garde brownie points: The audience realizes quickly that it is in fact a symbol that works on many levels to encapsulate and heighten the drama.

El pasado, which I saw at the Public Theater in New York, focuses on the lives of four young Argentinians from 1999 to 2009, as they move from their twenties into their thirties, from being very young to less so – in the playwright's words, El pasado depicts “the moment one stops being who one thinks one is to become the person one is.” The rotating platform is an obvious metaphor for time passing, both personally and globally: With each revolution, the characters move forward into the future, away from what they used to be and towards what they will become, and the world moves forward, too, away from the past and into the unknown. The partitions of the wheel also suggest a clock, the quarters of an hour, which works will with the format of the play – each scene, prefaced by the date, presents a discrete moment in the life of one of the characters. Credit for making this device work so smoothly belongs both to Pensotti, who wrote and directed the play, and particularly the actors, who seem completely at ease, as if the ground were not quite literally shifting beneath their feet.

The strongest aspect of El pasado, though, is the style, the weird, quasi-novelistic, quasi-cinematic way in which the drama is presented. Much like the nineteenth-century novels the playwright has cited as influences, the play makes use of narration, omniscience; in each scene, one of the characters will make up a microphone and narrate what is happening, what the character is thinking or doing or feeling as we watch him or her (and then that narrator will pass the microphone off to another, jump to another quarter of the circle, and become a character). In this way, we both see the character doing whatever it is he or she is doing (among other things: keeping a severed hand in the freezer, stealing her father's money to move to France, watching movies, chopping onions) and also get an analysis of it, the kind of big-picture view that a character can never give us. Pensotti's play feels more like a novel read aloud, a subtitled movie, than it does a play – and he and the cast make that a strength.

The stories of the individual characters are interesting, too, identifiable (Vicky, who discovers her father's parallel life; Laura, who attempts to move to France only to return quickly to Argentina; Pablo, who becomes obsessed with a severed hand he finds in his mail; Daniel, who wants to be a filmmaker and feels himself a phony and, later, a failure), and brought vividly to life by the actors, all of whom play multiple roles in both the narration and the actual scenes. The form is what spoke to me the most, though; through this style, Pensotti seems to have bridged a gap between novel and drama, between literature written down and literature acted out.

Watching plays has always made me in some way uncomfortable – it always seemed too naked, too exposed, almost embarrassing. Theater is about performing emotion, experiencing it; novels for me have always been about analyzing it, making a story and therefore sense out of it. El pasado es un animal grotesco, it seems to me, does both at once: This is a play about myths that lets us see those who make them, about people and how they interpret themselves, about, to use Joan Didion's phrase, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live – and how those stories change, must change, as we grow up, as that wheel keeps spinning.