The play’s title, “Escuela,” informs us that we have entered a school. Five students in front of a chalkboard face one another in a circle, waiting for the audience to take their seats so they can begin their discussion. Each wears a makeshift mask, revealing only their eyes. The series of lectures begins.
The play’s five characters are Chilean Marxist rebels, meeting secretly in 1987. The masks stop feeling threatening as we come to know the character’s personalities through their voices. The first actor to speak has a kind and patient voice, and he readily doles out praise for correct answers. Throughout the play, two of the characters are oddly goofy — they are hazy on some of the longer terms they are supposed to teach, and their emphatic imitations of gunshots elicit giggles from fellow actors and audience members alike.
The lighting changes, and a different student stands up to teach. Each character has a specialty subject: basic Marxist theory, the structure of their resistance movement, how to shoot a gun, how to make a bomb and the lies of American propaganda.
“Escuela” transforms when a student kneels to explain a bomb’s parts, laying them out on the table. This teacher sounds older, wiser than the rest as she speaks in an unnervingly calm tone to the line of students wringing their hands. With the bomb before them, the students finally confront the big questions. They grapple with the idea that they might kill a little old blind lady out for a walk at night and calculate the time they will have to run from a detonating bomb. It might not be enough, one student points out. The conversation drifts to a comrade who was killed mishandling a bomb. “How old was he?” one student asks. “Sixteen.” They take a moment of silence.
The play is conventional in that it offers neither new insights into the revolutionaries’ Marxist convictions nor the morality of killing for a cause. We hear a superficial overview of Communist ideology, the people’s grievances with their government and jaded perspective that supposedly free elections will impact politics, and the holy status to which the revolutionaries elevate their own cause. It is a history lecture in the first-person voice.
The strength of “Escuela” lay in its theatrical form, not in its historical or moral analysis. One lecture teaches us about the complex systems of transmitting information among the rebels; the teacher proudly states that he is storing 12 notes with coded information under his clothing, and explains the rebels’ ingenious system of synchronizing watches to transfer notes while surreptitiously crossing paths in the street. Knowledge is literally power in this context, as students learn and share information on how to use and create weapons.
The students are nervous as they hear the procedure for converting mining materials into a bomb because this knowledge has gravity. Their new destructive capability has secured their role in the movement; the power has given them a responsibility to act with it. Here, “Escuela” points the spotlight at us: we too have learned precious information at the school tonight — both the literal procedure for creating weapons and the plans to solve the social issues they face. We leave the theater with a different sense of our involvement in our own world.
Contact HANNAH KAZIS-TAYLOR at email@example.com .