In story and imagery, a tale meant to startle at ArtsEmerson
As stage director Juan Carlos Zagal discusses the play “Historia de Amor” with help from a translator, he makes one response that requires no interpretation.
When asked if the play is a difficult one for audiences to watch, he laughs quickly and bypasses his translator to answer, in English: “Of course.”
He’s speaking on a Skype call from Santiago, Chile, in the office of one of the producers of the show’s current tour. Zagal and Laura Pizarro adapted the play from a 1999 French-language graphic novel of the same name by Régis Jauffret.
It’s the story of a college professor who sees a woman on the subway, becomes infatuated with her, and violently takes control of her life, convinced they are having a passionate affair. The story includes a rape early on, followed by sustained physical and psychological abuse. The title, which renders into English as “Love Story,” is darkly ironic.
“Historia de Amor” made its North American debut in Los Angeles this month. ArtsEmerson brings it to the Cutler Majestic Theatre for five performances beginning Thursday.
Though it’s performed in Spanish with English supertitles, the show magnifies its unsettling feel with a striking visual look that needs no translation. Zagal, Pizarro, and their theater company, Teatrocinema — which they and filmmaker Duano Totoro cofounded in 2005 — devised a bracingly original theatrical language to tell their story.
“Our starting point is that we are in 2016 and we need to make a theater different from the theater they made 100 years ago,” Zagal, 55, says. “The significant question for us is: Is it possible to travel intensely in time and space with live actors onstage, in the same way that movies or literature do?”
The creators employ video, animation, and two projection screens — one downstage from the playing space, the other upstage — to create a highly stylized presentation that mimics the look of a black-and-white graphic novel. The end result is a melding of live performance and filmmaking.
ArtsEmerson co-artistic directors Polly Carl and David Dower have taken care to warn that “Historia” can be upsetting, and recommend it for audience members 18 or older. Though graphic depictions of violence are nothing new in American culture, the effect of the show’s careful stagecraft is to challenge audiences by presenting the events strictly from the protagonist’s view. The object of his obsession is seen as just that, an object — she remains mute and does not fight back against the man’s coercion in a way that might be cathartic for audiences.
“The end [result] is to be inside the mind of a man who is a psycho, to try to discover how his mind works,” Zagal says. “For some people it’s very bothering that the woman closes up like an oyster and does not defend herself. But indeed this oyster-like reaction is her defense.”
Dower says there’s a visceral immediacy to this approach that can be disquieting.
“Rape culture in this country is generally depicted in media, both in entertainment and even in the news, in a way that softens the gaze on the perpetrator by sometimes putting some blame toward the victim, or giving some back story that creates a motivation,” he says. “These guys don’t do that. The perpetrator is entirely self-motivated and unvarnished, with a sense that he is entitled to whatever he wants, and there’s no explanation given. She’s not given any voice, so there’s no way to split any of the blame toward her. We’re not used to seeing that.”
In the hands of its creators, “Historia” also operates at a metaphorical level, informed by the tyrannous rule of Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in Chile in a United States-backed coup d’etat in 1973. His violent, 17-year rule was infamously marked by mass arrests and the “disappearing” of thousands of citizens.
Though the play focuses on the unnamed professor and his prey, other characters sometimes linger in the background, observing but not interfering.
“As a society, we keep silent witness. We’re complicit,” Zagal says. “It’s the silence when you know that something wrong has been done but you don’t say anything. We become accomplices.”
Dower says the Chilean people have enough distance now from that bloody part of their history to process it through art at a metaphorical level, but he notes the danger in engaging with the reality of sexual violence in an abstract way — particularly with the heightened attention being paid now in this country to sexual assault at colleges.
“They can tell a story like this in the context of something they’ve lived through at a societal level, and not just as a straight-ahead story of sexual assault,” Dower says of the play’s creators. But it’s problematic, he says, “for us particularly, on a college campus at this moment.”
“But everybody that I’ve talked to who’s seen it always says the same thing. Yes, it’s a hard story. But it feels entirely important that it’s being told.”
Historia de Amor
Created by Teatrocinema. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, April 21-24. Tickets: 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org