This drama of Chilean exiles in Wisconsin is a play of rare beauty that speaks to loss, hope, and regret in ways we seldom see

American girls feel a Chile in the air: Elizabeth Bigger (l) and Gricelda Silva as Gaby and Beny
American girls feel a Chile in the air: Elizabeth Bigger (l) and Gricelda Silva as Gaby and Beny (Courtesy of Salvage Vanguard Theater)


Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd., 512/474-7886
Through Nov. 2
Running time: 1 hr, 55 min

Pinkolandia takes a lot of risks. It's a period piece set in the recent past; it features adult actors playing children; it deals with the 1973 Chilean coup, which takes considerable sensitivity to discuss; chunks of the play are spoken in Spanish; entire sequences occur only in the heads of the preteen protagonists. There are numerous ways for Pinkolandia to fail built right into the script – which makes the fact that it's so successful all the more rewarding.

The play centers around Beny and Gaby, two sisters living in Wisconsin in the fall of 1982. Beny is 12, and Gaby is 8, and they're American girls through and through – despite the fact that Beny was born in Chile, a country her politically active parents fled after Pinochet's coup. But when their Tio Ignacio comes to visit, the girls are forced to confront a past that they never really knew.

Jude Hickey and Martinique Duchene-Phillips shine as those parents, exiles bristling at the new lives they've found themselves living: he a professor struggling to accept that his revolutionary days are behind him, she a mother whose daily life is given to keeping her family together. Hickey balances a warm playfulness with an abiding melancholy, while Duchene-Phillips reveals flickers of the passion that led her character to believe in Allende's Chile behind her matronly stoicism. All of the adults – the parents and Ignacio (Rupert Reyes) – are people whose stories are mostly in the past, which the actors convey with subtle notes of sadness.

Thus, Beny and Gaby are thrust into the position of carrying the show forward. Both girls enjoy spending time in fantasy worlds of their own devising. Gaby visits "Closetlandia," where she befriends a polar bear whose circumstances echo those of Chilean exiles, with a homeland no longer welcoming to them. Beny's fantasies are darker, full of persecution by Nazis. It's hard to overstate how effective Elizabeth Bigger and Gricelda Silva are in these roles; both convey the struggle of being a child in a confusing adult world (something Andrea Thome's script smartly illustrates, at least for the monolingual, by having them observe key conversations in Spanish), and also carry extended scenes that take place in their own imaginations. As Gaby, Bigger deftly navigates the space between "childlike" and "childish," while Silva's Beny captures the enthusiasm and ignorance that comes with being 12 years old and thinking you know everything.

It all adds up to a complicated evening, one that transcends whatever flaws may exist in Salvage Vanguard Theater's production. Yeah, the set is threadbare, the script might be 10 minutes too long, and some of the fantasy sequences never quite fit in with the material. But none of that matters much when the final product is so compelling and provides so many perspectives that stages – in Austin and elsewhere – rarely offer. Pinkolandia is a play of rare beauty that speaks to loss, hope, and regret in ways we seldom see.

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Pinkolandia, Austin theatre, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Andrea Thome, Elizabeth Bigger, Gricelda Silva, Jude Hickey, Martinique Duchene-Phillips, Rupert Reyes

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