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Bolivian theatre group to stage Latin take on Hamlet at Toronto festival

Hamlet de los Andes is one of several Latin and indigenous adaptations of Western classics presented at Rutas Panamericanas Performing Arts Festival this year in Toronto.

Guy Labadens

For 20 years, the company members of Teatro de los Andes lived and worked on a hacienda in the Bolivian countryside. At first, the living arrangements were simple. The young actors and designers were all single, and so having a space where performance and life could overlap was a practical way of maximizing rehearsal time, while minimizing costs, in a country with no arts funding. But as the company grew in reputation, so too did it expand in size, with children born on the estate, and the next generation growing up beside the theatre.

"What's interesting," says Alice Guimaraes, a Brazilian actor who has been with the company since 1997, "is that only girls have been born on the hacienda, in all these years. Even our cook." She pauses, smiling. "Only daughters."

Guimaraes plays several canonical roles, including Gertrude and Ophelia, in the company's Hamlet de los Andes, which opens Oct. 12 at the biennial Rutas Panamericanas Performing Arts Festival in Toronto. The pared-down Spanish adaptation has toured internationally, including a short run at London's Barbican Centre's the Pit (its extra space theatre) in 2013, where it got strong reviews on the indie-theatre circuit. The production reimagines Shakespeare's tragedy of identity and madness in the context of Bolivian politics, with a particular focus on the tension between city and countryside, modernity and ancestral roots.

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"We wanted to do Hamlet for a long time," explains actor and set designer Gonzalo Callejas, who has been with the company for 26 years. "In the last decade, Bolivia has met with many political and social changes. Our company was undergoing its own transformation," he adds, citing the departure of long-time director Cesar Brie, whom the actors refer to jokingly as their "father."

"Reading Hamlet, we felt that Shakespeare was talking about Bolivia and our own reality as a theatre group."

Hamlet de los Andes is one of several Latin and indigenous adaptations of Western classics presented at Rutas this year. Founded in 2012 by Aluna Theatre artistic director Beatriz Pizano, the festival aims to bring theatrical traditions "south of the border"– a term broad enough to include plays from New Zealand and dancers from the Caribbean – to Toronto audiences. More fundamentally, Rutas is interested in showcasing the kind of physically imaginative work that's endemic to Southern-Hemisphere theatre; it's a style inflected with the spirit of community and protest, impelled by a real-world need to speak out.

Opening night arrived this year at a charged political moment. The festival was slated to begin with Antigonas Tribunal de Mujeres, a reimagining of Sophocles's tragedy set against Colombia's 52-year-old war with FARC rebels. It's a production in which life and art form concentric circles, with an all-female ensemble composed of more activists than actors, including former political prisoners, bereaved family members of the conflict and one of this year's 376 Nobel Peace Prize nominees, Luz Marina Bernal Parra. (The prize was awarded last Thursday to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos).

In the days leading up to Colombia's much-anticipated referendum on the peace agreement with FARC, Antigonas toured to Mexico and Vancouver. The company hoped for systemic change that would end decades of brutality, a hope that infected the mood on stage. But in a surprise result that's drawing comparisons with Brexit, Colombia voted against the peace deal on Oct. 3. Two days later, Antigonas opened in Toronto.

"It was very sad for all of us," says Pizano, who was born in Medellin, Colombia and has lived in Canada for 30 years. "But opening night was very beautiful. This was the company's first performance since hearing the referendum results and it was incredibly emotional backstage. There were moments when the women went off script completely and just started to talk about the way that Canada and the international community can help."

The Colombian ambassador to Canada attended with his consul, a gesture that was meaningful to the company, who'll face various risks upon their return home. "The director and all these women are very afraid of the consequences now, because in the past the paramilitary has killed human-rights activists," Pizano explains. "The uncertainty right now is devastating."

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For Pizano, this high-stakes urgency, and the ineluctable overlap between public and creative life, is at the heart of what distinguishes Latin American theatre from its Canadian counterpart. The festival is both a means of bringing potent examples of this kind of political theatre to Toronto, and of linking the city's arts community to its Spanish-speaking one. In order to curate effectively, Pizano travels intrepidly across South America, finding herself at little-known festivals, sometimes in poor, improvised theatres with dirt floors.

It was at one of these spaces in Colombia that she met noted Argentinian director Cristina Castrillo, who works through metaphor, image and movement to explore a host of social issues. At Rutas, the 65-year-old Castrillo will be performing a textless, 50-minute solo called If Silence Knew, which is her attempt to free words from the flattening effect of repetition.

"I rarely perform," says Castrillo, whose acclaimed company Teatro Delle Radici (Theatre of Roots) is based in Switzerland. "But once in a while I need to understand my own position about what I'm doing – I need to think differently as an artist. And for this play, I needed to examine the uselessness of words."

Words, translation and meaning are topics that Pizano can't say enough about. They become a matter of both form and content in a bilingual festival that aspires to link communities separated by language. Pizano explains that many of the festival's eight productions (there are also conferences, master classes and two films), consider translation to be an inherent element of the show, either through the creative use of surtitles or an actual layering of languages spoken on stage. But she also tries to program work that can make sense even when the semantics escape you or, like Castrillo's solo, give up on language altogether.

"For the last two years, we've been talking very much about language: the colonization of language. What languages do we put on stage? My dream is a fully bilingual ensemble," she says, widening her eyes with characteristic intensity. But for now, Pizano is just as interested in how much a powerful piece of theatre can transcend linguistic barriers on its own.

Rutas Panamericas continues at the Daniels Spectrum in Toronto until Oct. 16

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