Villa, written and directed by Guillermo Calderón, opens on three women who are considering a scale model of the “villa,” a place in Chile where, in the 1970s under military dictator Augusto Pinochet (who ruled from 1973–90), atrocities were carried out, predominantly against women. One of the three, who are present-day Chileans, suggests making it into a Disneyland-like theme park of terror. There are other suggestions, too, but when they try to vote, each time a “spoiled ballot” appears that implies at any given time, one of them cannot be impartial—and the vote must be unanimous.
Villa moves in the direction of being a great and profound work about the brutality of mankind, and is reminiscent of Harold Pinter in this way. Also, like Pinter, Calderón’s language (as rendered in a translation by William Gregory) is vivid, poetic, ironic and intelligent.
However, Calderón is less skilled as a director, and the play lacks the physicality needed to give the actors any weight. Instead, the three women, all coincidentally named Alejandra (played by Crystal Finn, Vivia Font and Harmony Stempel), become what’s called in fiction “mouths in a white room,” which means they are talking but we don’t know anything about them, and the words are not connected in any meaningful way to time, place, or to an emotional or relational interior. As a result, the acting is drowned in clichés about women’s emotional responses: they are interchangeably sulky, hysterical, screaming, sobbing, withdrawn and pouty without any clear provocation. It creates a disconnect between the writing and the acting.
There are other aspects of the production that need some refinement. For example, when one of the women has a negative reaction to the given task, she says “it makes me sick, like selling eggs.” Something feels lost in the translation here, since selling eggs seems like an inoffensive action. But perhaps that’s the point. They are given a task and they must make an impartial decision, but it’s not a benign or easy task. The weight of history and its representation rests on their shoulders.
The stage set, by Maria Fernanda Videla Urra, is neat and spare. The back wall is painted to look like an urban street scene, replete with graffiti and the outline of a fist in back. Whether it’s meant to represent the solidarity of the Chilean people today or the military junta of the past is unclear, but Urra’s backdrop is powerful in its ambiguity. The actors periodically take glasses from a low tray table to fill with water; by the end, the table is heavily littered with a variety of them in all sizes and colors. The clutter feels right for the weight and futility of the task.
Villa is a flexible script and could serve well for other casting possibilities, such as three men or a multigenerational cast. There are many clever lines, and Calderón is willing to assert often unspoken ideas such as “Depression is a part of contemporary art.” On American soil, where everything is for sale and everyone is supposed to be happy, ideas like this are especially refreshing. The solution the women are trying to determine, however, is anything but easy, and the three Alejandras are in an unenviable position of trying to do so. On the whole, the play admirably wrestles with the bigger idea of how to memorialize a tragedy.
Performances of Villa run through April 1 at the Wild Project (195 East 3rd St., Manhattan). Tickets are $35 for general admission and $45 for reserved seating, and may be purchased by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting playco.org. There are student rush tickets available at the box office 30 minutes prior to curtain for each performance, with a valid ID.