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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Full Circle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Imagine a U.S. without Racism

Pedro R. Bayon and Lara Trujillo
Photo by L.K. Bachman
The Atacama is a massive desert, the driest place on the planet. It is vast, wedged between the Pacific coast and the Andes Mountains, and stretching from southern Peru to about a third of a way down the long coastline of Chile. Few forms of life, animal or vegetable, can survive in this barren expanse. During the 1970s, after Chilean General Augusto Pinochet staged a coup that overthrew the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, the Atacama became a burial grounds for the remains of dissidents who resisted Pinochet. Thousands of individuals were arrested, tortured, and, in many cases, made to disappear. For some that meant being given a shallow burial in the Atacama. Later they were scooped and dropped into the sea to destroy evidence of these heinous crimes.

A particular patch of this desert is the setting of Augusto Federico Amador's play Atacama, now being presented by Full Circle Theater on Park Square Theatre's proscenium stage. The play takes place thirty years after Pinochet inflicted terror on his countrymen–and women. Two strangers, Diego and Ignacia, turn up in that same patch, both intent on searching the earth for some bit of bone that might, against all odds, be the remains of a child each of them lost. Ignacia lost her son and has been sifting these sands for decades in hopes of recovering traces of him, an obsession shared by many other mothers of the "disappeared." The dessert is so vast, the numbers of buried bodies so great, it is surely a fool's errand, but these fools are fueled by an unreasonable force: hope. Diego is new to the hunt, searching for the first time so many years after the death of his daughter. For him, we soon recognize, something other than hope is his driving force.

Ignacia explains that when a bit of bone is found, she sends it to the capital, Santiago, where DNA testing can identify the victim. She gives Diego advice on the proper way to sift without risk of damaging anything that might be found. She also wonders why she has never seen him there before, why now, after the passing of decades, he has decided to search for his daughter's remains. Diego would prefer to be left alone. He knows little about what his mission entails and is visibly ambivalent about being there at all. Ignacia persists and In the course of the play's eighty minutes, both reveal the demons that drive them to spend their days stooped over the sands of the Atacama. That there is more to Diego and Ignacia than we see at first blush is not surprising, but the extent of those revelations is.

The premise established is a powerful one, with the potential to stir us deeply. Mina Kinukawa has created a striking dessert landscape, evocatively lit by Karin Olson, with Quinci Bachman's soundscape providing the low but constant thrum of a desert wind. One has to suspend a bit of disbelief at the start to accept the notion that, out of the entire vast Atacama, Diego arrives at the very spot where Ignacia has stationed herself, but we are willing to allow that. After all, it is possible.

Unfortunately, the conversations that proceed to punctuate their days also raise disbelief. Their words betray the fact that they are scripted. Of course, playwright Amador has carefully and eloquently crafted these words, but when spoken they should feel spontaneous, the half-halting exchange of two strangers whose paths have just crossed. Early on, Ignacia snorts at Diego "Yours is the worst kind." Diego responds "What kind is that?" and she retorts "the fucking amateurs." That Ignacia would be so confrontational toward Diego, and that Diego would tolerate this from a stranger, feels very dramatic, but not credible.

About two thirds into the play come revelations that cast both Ignacia and Diego in an extremely different light. A supernatural element invoked here comes too abruptly, without laying down tracks that lead organically to these transitions. Again, it feels like ideas are employed to make bold statements that erase any ambiguities and position the characters on different sides of an unbreachable moral chasm. While the ideas are powerful, the feelings one would expect them to evoke are not present.

The two excellent actors on stage cannot be faulted for any of this. Both Pedro R. Bayon, as Diego, and Lara Trujillo, as Ignacia, imbed a host of feelings into their characters, making each an authentic presence. It is in the way the interactions between them are written that fails to ignite. Another lapse in the production's credibility is that both characters describe themselves as being old. If it is thirty years after their adult children were killed, one would expect them to be well past sixty, at least. Bayon and Trujillo appear notably younger, and they do not seem to have difficulty getting up and down from the desert floor, as their complaints of having aging bodies would suggest.

In addition to performing as Ignacia, Trujillo also directs this production, and perhaps there were missed opportunities to convey more nuance in the interactions between the two characters, to establish the credibility to their interactions, to the revelation that occurs late in the play and the denouement that concludes it.

The presence of an astronomical observatory atop a mountain that looks down upon their dig site opens up doors for some of the most interesting conversations, with Diego enthralled by science and Ignacia more firmly routed in the spirt. The playwright raises complex questions, resulting in some highly stimulating dialogue; this more than anything informs us about the true nature of each of the two characters.

Atacama deals with a horrific subject by suggesting that an endless search to regain what has been ripped from the hearts of mothers can provide solace. Perhaps it can, but we see little evidence of that. As the play ends, we are given some reason to believe that hope has prevailed–that the force of evil is serving penance and the force of love is resurrected. We glean this from the final acts and words, but without the emotional rush that would suggest we really believe this is so.

Amador is a playwright with a great deal to say. His ideas may have been better served were his characters' relationship developed as a deepening interaction between two authentic people, rather than between two sets of ideas, beliefs and positions. Nonetheless, Full Circle Theater has given Atacama quite a beautiful staging, and the ideas it expresses are potent enough to make it worth viewing.

Atacama, a Full Circle Theater production, through May 1, 2022, on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $35.00. Seniors (62 and up), $5.00 discount; military personnel $10.00 discount with promo code MIL; under age 30, $21.00 tickets with promo code 30U; students and educators with ID, $16.00 tickets. For information and tickets, please visit or call 651-291-7005.

Playwright: Augusto Federico Amador; Director: Lara Trujillo; Associate Director: Rick Shiomi; Assistant Director: Siddeeqah; Set Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Khamphian Vang; Lighting Design: Karin Olsen; Sound and Projection Design: Quinci Bachmam; Props Design: Rene'e Gonzales; Dramaturg: Stephanie Lein Walseth; Directing and Dramaturgy Associate: Martha B. Johnson; Stage Manager: Keara Lavandowska; Assistant Stage Manager: Johanna Keller Flores;

Cast: Pedro R. Bayon (Diego), Lara Trujillo (Ignacia).