Historia de Amor translates to “Love Story.” Yet, there’s nothing sentimental or romantic about this production that comes from Santiago, Chile. Rather, it’s a dark story of obsession and delusion, created by a group of artists who deeply challenge our understanding of the word love and the relationships of power intertwined inside of love’s definition.
We’ve had extensive internal dialogue at ArtsEmerson about why we think it is important to bring this complicated show to Boston audiences. There are some easy answers, and some more difficult ones. The easy answers surround the mastery of the artistry involved in making this production. Technologically and aesthetically it will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen on our stages. It’s a masterful merging of the techniques of cinema and theater with a graphic novel overlay that will make you doubt you’re seeing live theater. Real bodies are intersecting with filmic projections augmented by mirrors, intricate staging and deft choreography. You will be awed by the visual spectacle, dare I say the show is beautiful in its technique.
The more difficult answers we can only come to together. And we must consider our answers by confronting the words and action of the show itself. This part is not beautiful in the ways we traditionally define beauty—a man stalking, obsessing over, and raping the woman he believes he is destined to love. We follow his internal monologue, she almost never speaks as the story is his demented version of love, where woman is the object. She is not human, she is a projection of his violent desires, her humanity forced ultimately to succumb to his power over her. This world is the opposite of the beauty of the technological and aesthetic frame of the show. It deals in what Antonin Artaud called the “theater of cruelty.” Like a cohort of other artists and philosophers, Artaud believed we must embrace the reality of the cruelty that comes with living in order to work our way into a different place, that we must descend in order to rise. Cultural theorist and author Maggie Nelson in her book, The Art of Cruelty, explores what the Buddhist’s call “styles of imprisonment.” She is interested in the “sometimes simple, sometimes intricate ways in which humans imprison themselves and their others, thereby causing suffering rather than alleviating it.”
And she asks, as we ask in the context of Historia de Amor: what is the purpose of art that delves deep into the prisons of cruelty and suffering?
Of course there is no single answer to that question. When you see the show you will formulate your own answer. Does watching and listening to the misogynistic actions and ramblings of this man illuminate something that will tell us about the time we live in now or will it only infuriate you as the audience member? Will we/you find some kind of revelation in watching pathology unfold—revelations that give us insight into the kind of suffering we see in Syria or insight into the delusions of political leaders who rise to power with cruelty at their core, or insight into the minds of gunmen who open fire on innocent victims in schools and movie theaters? How could you not explore cruelty in your art or in the case of Historia de Amor, the art of cruelty after living in a country whose ruler (Pinochet) was responsible for torturing upwards of 30,000 people, and murdering and disappearing thousands more between 1973 and 1990?
There is incredible fragmentation in Historia de Amor as beauty and ugliness, theater and film, and man and woman collide in irreparable fashion. We cannot make this experience whole—our varied reactions to it will inevitably divide us—but rather we must assess it through the sum of it parts, and make our own meaning of it—of art, beauty, cruelty, and ugliness juxtaposed. Sometimes art entertains, sometimes it is a glorious catharsis, and sometimes it unsettles us to our core—Historia de Amor will do the latter. For us this an important contribution to the “why” of theater.
Polly Carl is the co-artistic director of ArtsEmerson.