A movie and a play and a graphic novel rolled into one
Teatrocinema brings to life the story of a bank heist in ‘Plata Quemada’
Written by Juan Carlos Zagal and Sofía Zagal, and assisted by Montserrat Quezada
Directed by Juan Carlos Zagal
Adapted from Ricardo Piglia’s novel Plata Quemada
Emerson Paramount Theater
In 2016, the Chilean theater company Teatrocinema brought their adapted production of Historia de Amor to Boston, a production that was described as a “literal living graphic novel” by the Los Angeles Times. Now, four years later, Teatrocinema returns to Boston with Plata Quemada, in which the company’s four actors play out a notorious bank heist in Buenos Aires from 1965. Delivering rapid fire dialogue and acting against a projection screen of moving animation, they bring to life an intense rollercoaster of crime and romance. Unfortunately, I cannot compare this to Historia de Amor because that production played in Boston before I was a student here, but I can say their adaptation of Plata Quemada is truly a living graphic novel, born somewhere between a noir film thriller and a theatrical play, and is something worth experiencing.
First, mad props to Teatrocinema for making it to Boston in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. They performed Wednesday night at the Paramount Theater just before most of the Boston theater companies called off their performances. After facing the coronavirus in Hong Kong and a tornado in Nashville, the Chilean theater company faced disaster after disaster in bringing this production to life. And boy, did they perform with absolute vigor and intensity.
The play opens to a quote by Bertolt Brecht: “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” While this is the theme the performance sets out to achieve, the financial corruption of banks is not what comes out most clearly by the end. Instead, we are treated with a movie inside a play which feels more like a living graphic novel. The cast of four — Christian Aguilera, Daniel Gallo, Esteban Cerda and Julián Marras — possess an impeccable sense of timing, playing the central characters Dorda, Nene Brignone, Mereles, and Malito, but also the police commissioner Silva and various authority characters. Meanwhile, they also play the director and “actors” of a film (called Plata Quemada) in which they are playing these aforementioned roles. This doubleness is inherently part of the play, a nod to the confusion of a double life in crime, where police officers are corrupt and the criminals, while far from innocent, are, in a sense, fascinating and emotional people.
Ricardo Piglia’s novel, Plata Quemada, was inspired by a real-life bank robbery in 1965, but the legend of the story looms further than the actual events. The core of the story is the relationship between Dorda and Nene, downplayed in the first half of the play, but in between the car chases and the shootouts and the crime plotting are breaks in which each of these characters delivers a monologue about their past and motivations. If an unjust social class structure and a corrupted law enforcement system are the villains, then these are the characters who, regardless of their ill intentions, are charged with righting the wrongs for all the wrong reasons.
Props to the Chilean theater company for bringing this Argentinian tale to life, a bank heist that is told largely through projection and vocal inflections. The set is simple: a rectangular projection screen that has actors playing in front of it as visible characters and behind it as silhouettes. The coordination among the actors was impeccable, with rapid costume changing and just a shift in the pitch and tone of their voices, allowing each actor to play multiple characters. It is impossible to capture the awe of this projection-and-actor coordination in writing, but I’ll make an attempt to showcase their inventiveness.
In one scene, the blueprint of a bank is projected onto the wall, with 3D animation moving us through the space. One actor supports another actor who is walking sideways in the air, on a stairwell projected at an angle on the back screen. In another moment, the four men discuss their plan to steal from an armed vehicle, carrying a rectangular board on which plans are projected while the projection on the screen shifts in space at different angles. These moments keep visual interest in what would otherwise be long speech bubbles in a graphic novel. The playfulness in which space is used also works with a convoluted heist with a simple emotional arc. Criminals, some born, some made, are taking their vengeance on society by robbing the great measure of inequality: money. The vocal inflections of the actors brought the characters to life, adding moments of humor and humanity in what could have been a more serious homage to noir heist films.
Through no fault of Teatrocinema, the narrative is permeated by the fear of the supposed “unnatural,” both in sexual orientation and in the lifestyle choice of crime. The homosexual relationship between Dorda and Nene is difficult to separate from their criminal acts, their propensity for violence, and their apparent insanity. Was it prison life and their history of sexual violence that caused their homosexuality, or was their homosexuality there from the start? It is difficult to not read the production as the former, and thus, as another work that unintentionally conflates queerness with violent and unstable personalities in the history of crime thrillers.
What Teatrocinema does nail, however, is the emotional finale. The rising emotional intensity of the violent escape from the police and the passion between Dorda and Nene are all there. Zagal’s music score is equally fantastic, tuned precisely for each scene, with the slow build and piano of a finale, or the heightened sounds of shots being fired. We feel, just as Dorda and Nene do, the intensity of their love for each other against the world they are trying to rob and avoid. To say more would be to spoil the ending.