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An Argentinean Play at Middlebury Recalls the Violence of Dictatorship

State of the Arts

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Promo Image for La Malasangre
  • Promo Image for La Malasangre

Everybody knows the story: A controlling father tries to dictate his daughter’s life, only to watch her fall in love with the very man he has deemed off limits. But the old tale isn’t usually quite as twisted as it is in La Malasangre (Bad Blood), by Argentinean playwright Griselda Gambaro.

“The play starts off, and things are already in full swing,” says assistant professor of drama Cláudio Medeiros, who is directing the play this week at Middlebury College. “There’s no sort of quiet building up to something. We’re about to hit the climax from the moment we begin.”

The play, which opens at Middlebury’s Seeler Studio Theatre on Thursday, is intense and provocative. First staged in early-’80s Argentina, when the ruling military junta was beginning to lose its grasp of power, La Malasangre is an allegorical response to the violent dictatorships that oppressed Gambaro’s country. Its central father character is loosely modeled on an earlier Argentinean tyrant, Juan Manuel de Rosas, the mid-19th-century dictator who seemed to derive particular pleasure from beheadings.

Gambaro’s work is rarely performed in North America, and Medeiros’ production of La Malasangre will be only the second staging of that play in the U.S.

“Misogyny is the central theme,” Medeiros says. “It’s as if [Gambaro] has created a fiction about what [Rosas’] experience with his own daughter would have been. The idea is that violence starts at home.”

The play, set in a European-style drawing room in the 1840s, is both violent and grotesque. The father has hired a hunchbacked tutor to teach his daughter, believing this will surely keep her from falling in love. A servant becomes obsessed with the daughter, bringing her dead animals in exchange for her attentions. The mother, in full self-preservation mode, convinces herself that her husband’s cruelty is just. And the daughter herself has learned to wield power like her father, ridiculing and abusing her disfigured tutor.

In Gambaro’s world, the victims can also become victimizers.

Physical violence drives the play, but Medeiros points out it’s of the theatrical sort, performed in a way that is palatable to the audience. Gambaro uses rhetorical codes, like shifting from prose to poetry, and employs stylized gestures drawn from clowning techniques.

“[Gambaro] is very careful not to eroticize the violence, even though there is an erotic component to it,” Medeiros says. “It’s not the kind of thing that someone would get up and walk out on.”

In some ways, the audience becomes a silent witness to injustice, just as Gambaro’s Argentinean society silently permitted the brutality of its dictators.

“[The theater] is a place where things can appear and disappear,” Medeiros says. “It’s a perfect space in which to dramatize how things can happen before our very eyes without us even believing in them, because they’re too cruel, or because they’ve been staged in a certain way that [leads us] to believe they didn’t happen.”

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