Next to the bowling greens in Frick Park, a large tent stirs anticipation. Quantum Theatre’s audience members are invited into the peña of beloved Chilean artist-activist Violeta Parra. Looking for Violeta explores the life and art of Violeta Parra who established just such a gathering place for artists and her country’s people. Quantum begins its 29th season with one of its more than 20 world premieres to pay homage to Parra and her vision by providing another singular experience for theatre-goers.
Vibrant and uplifting, Looking for Violeta reminds us to explore and respect one another’s histories and traditions regardless of borders or where we happen to live. Violeta Parra (1917–1967) did just that. Quantum’s collaborative production embodies her adventurous artistry along with that of Pittsburgh’s intentionally itinerant troupe.
Quantum Founder and Artistic Director Karla Boos welcomes patrons in the company’s first tent setting to meet Violeta, her family, colleagues and some of the Chileans whose traditional music and poetry inspired her. The intimate 90-minute journey indeed feels like a visit to someone’s home. Evoking the Chilean peña or gathering place, this intriguing and entertaining work celebrates Violeta’s own welcoming of her loved ones and the indigenoous poor in her space.
The fast-moving story is poetically scripted by Chilean playwright María José Galleguillos, writing for her first theatre piece in English. The story is artfully crammed with the details about Violeta’s life and passions. Ten performers are on stage for most all of the 90 minute show, most of which is sung, scored, and on the move.
Lead actor and longtime Quantum artist Carolina Loyola-Garcia applies her own exploration of Violeta’s work and Chilean tradition in the title role. An accomplished multi-disciplinary artist in her own right, Loyola-Garcia moves through the wide range of joys and sorrows of Parra’s experiences through an energetic, captivating, and multi-faceted performance. With
her mastery of from from flamenco to folk tunes, Loyola-Garcia enlivens Chilean art with her own fiery persistence in an unforgettable performance honoring Violeta Parra.
Violeta’s elder brother Nicanor Parra, who recently passed in early 2018 at 103, supported her imaginative art and exploration of indigneous music. Eugene Perry portrays the scientist-poet brother. This stellar bass-baritone carries much of the sung narrative, inviting the audience to join his quest for understanding his sister’s turbulent and productive life. By the end of the play, he invites Violeta to witness the lasting significance of her work and political influence.
It seems that composer Emily Pinkerton, an ethnomusicologist perhaps best known as one of the two performers in The Early Mays folk duo, was destined to write music for this project. It’s an amazing pairing for Pinkerton’s passion and expertise around traditional Chilean music. While permissions were not possible for more than one song in Violeta’s canon, Pinkerton’s original score expertly draws on the style of Violeta’s music.
In addition to Loyola-Garcia, Perry, and Pinkerton, a delightfully talented ensemble of singer-actors features Kelsey Robinson, Jerreme Rodriguez, and Raquel Winnica Young. Under Boos’ direction, they seamlessly depict a singing and dancing parade of characters ranging from all members of the central Parra family to native Chileans who share their music with Violeta.
Leading the lively band of outstanding instrumentalists, Pinkerton plays multiple roles and guitars, including iconic Guitarrón chileno, the large 25-string Chilean bass guitar. It’s a rare event for this alone as the instrument is not often heard outside of Chile.
The ensemble of stellar instrumentalists is completed by guitarist Jon Bañuelos, bassist José Layo Puentes, along with versatile percussionist Ryan Socrates, and Erik Lawrence, featured on saxophone, flute, and Quena, the distinctive Andean flute.
Music Director Daniel Nesta Curtis, who directs Carnegie Mellon University’s Contemporary Ensemble, prepared the cast and band.
Fine performances and a practical setting not only conjure Violeta’s peña, but keep up to 150 audience members close to the performers. Scenic design by Tucker Topel with support from scenic consultants Tony Ferrieri and Brigette Le Brigand (fabric artist) and Sarah McPartland, assistant designer, establish a cozy space for storytelling that is both intimate and efficient.
Todd Brown (lights) and Steve Shapiro (sound) again apply their outstanding technical artistry to both subtle and dramatic moments while the singing, text, and score are very distinctly heard. Costumes by Marissa Miskanin provide variety for a cast in which all but Garcia play many roles. Seamless costume changes and adjustments assist transitions without distraction.
Less narrative and more music works well here, as there is so much to tell. Burlap signs signal changes in setting or themes ranging from “The People’s Music” and “Political Consciousness,” to “Hunger and “Fame.” Le Brigand’s colorful hangings evoke the flavor of Parra’s own fabric art–arpilleras–that were used to convey subversive messages against Central America’s authoritarian regimes. The scope of Violeta’s art is captured as her visit to a Louvre curator is realistically depicted with her hauling a huge rolled up over her shoulder and then unrolling it on the floor. The resultant exhibit was historic and predicted the museum devoted solely to her visual art in Santiago.
Violeta’s music was significant in nueva canción (new song) movement, Chile’s contribution to 1960s music that promoted causes and activism Internationally. In Violeta’s Chile, the preservation of traditional music aligned with resistance against numerous totalitarian regimes.
Violeta’s signature “Gracias a la vita” (“Thanks to Life”) thematically represents her life and art. Its strains echo in the first moment her brother Nicanor successfully summons his sister’s spirit through the poignant closing moments when he loses her. The audience is then washed with Violeta’s recording of the iconic song. It’s additionally bittersweet that this is the only Parra work actually heard, but Pinkerton rises to her task to create songs and music that tell stories and supports the action.
“Fragile as a second” as the script reminds us. Violeta Parra may have taken own life at age 49, but her spirit lives via this vibrant and important Quantum production. Nueva canción inspires and reminds us to explore and respect one another’s histories and traditions regardless of borders or where we happen to live.
Looking for Violeta began with Quantum Artistic Director Karla Boos’ fascination with the 20th century artist’s story during a visit to Chile with Loyola-Garcia and brings them both to Violeta’s tent. For more on the development of this new work, check out our PITR preview here. We also recommend reading more about Loyola-Garcia in her website.)
Audience members are encouraged to picnic via food truck fare or their own baskets before performances during run. Patrons can also partake of Quantum’s menu of discussions and audience events. The tent is next to the Lawn Bowling Greens in Frick Park at 7300 Reynolds St. There is free street parking, so best to arrive early and note that evening curtain times vary and that seating is not reserved. Remember that it’s summer, but ate evening breezes through the tent suggest that a light wrap or sweater might be helpful while you’ll certainly see some dog walkers and bicyclists around outside the tent.
For details, tickets and season subscriptions, calling 412-362-1713 or visit Quantum’s site.
Photography Credit: Heather Mull
Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh LinkedIn
Categories: Archived Reviews