Theater & dance

Stage REview

‘Historia’ tells a chilling tale of violence and helplessness

A scene from “Historia de Amor,” directed Juan Carlos Zagal.
Montserrat Quezada
A scene from “Historia de Amor,” directed Juan Carlos Zagal.

There’s no escape for the victim of an obsessive stalker and rapist who takes away her freedom and takes over her life in “Historia de Amor.’’ And no escape for the audience, either.

Enfolding us in darkness — visual, psychological, metaphorical — this multimedia tale of power and control is unsettling in ways that its creators intended, and also in ways that they may not have intended.

Either way, “Historia de Amor’’ is never less than grimly compelling. A skillfully executed, even groundbreaking, fusion of live performance, animation, video, and music, the production by the Chilean theater ensemble Teatrocinema will be presented through Sunday at the Cutler Majestic Theatre under the auspices of ArtsEmerson.

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Directed by Juan Carlos Zagal and presented in Spanish with English surtitles, “Historia de Amor’’ can be seen as an allegory of Chile under the cruelly despotic regime of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled that nation for nearly two decades after elected socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown in a US-backed coup.

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By extension, the enveloping claustrophobic mood of “Historia de Amor’’ speaks also to the soul-crushing dilemmas faced by any citizen of any country forced to live under a dictatorship.

In the moment, though, you can only focus on the plight of young Sofia, portrayed by Bernardita Montero, who is brutalized and terrorized for years by a deranged English professor, played by Julian Marras, after he follows her home one day from the subway. The passivity with which Sofia sometimes responds to her protracted torment is troubling.

Granted, that is part of the point of “Historia de Amor,’’ that Sofia becomes powerless in the face of steady abuse and dehumanization, that she lives in a society so disconnected and fragmented that she has nowhere to turn. After the first assault, the authorities intervene and the professor is briefly imprisoned, but they are no help thereafter; even on those occasions when she does fight him, her efforts are unavailing; even when Sofia moves, she can’t escape her tormentor.

And, yes, it is by the play’s deliberate design that we see events through the warped perspective of the professor: We are trapped inside a fevered, self-justifying mind that can only see Sofia as an object. Still, “Historia de Amor’’ would be stronger if there were more empathy-building dimensions to her characterization.

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Within those limits, Montero delivers an affecting performance, communicating Sofia’s anguish in gesture, facial expression, and very occasional word. Marras is downright chilling as the unnamed professor, whose narcissism goes to such monstrous extremes that he sees his rants and threats as terms of endearment. “We’re happy to be together and one day you will realize it,’’ he tells Sofia at one point. The actor uses his voice with great skill, alternating from a harsh near-whisper to a growl to a shout as he creates a character who is equally convincing in his painstaking cunning and in his scarily eruptive unpredictability.

It is in the area of formal innovation, however, that “Historia de Amor’’ really stands out. Adapted by director Zagal (who also composed the eerie music) and Montserrat Quezada from a novel by French author Regis Jauffret, “Historia de Amor’’ unfolds like a black-and-white graphic novel come to life, with stylized, start-and-stop movements by both actors and startling visual punctuation of the action.

Their interactions with animated images are engrossing and in some ways joltingly original, though the production’s stylistic debt to film noir and to the movie version of Frank Miller’s “Sin City’’ is also apparent. To cite just one instance in “Historia de Amor’’: When the professor telephones Sofia, the word “RING!’’ materializes in huge white letters, then vibrates with menace. It underscores how much her mind has been invaded by the ever-present threat he represents.

HISTORIA DE AMOR

Directed by Juan Carlos Zagal. Based on the novel by Regis Jauffret. Adaptation by Juan Carlos Zagal and Montserrat Quezada. Production by Teatrocinema. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through April 24. Tickets $25-$75, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.