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Augusto Bitter has risen in stature in the Toronto theatre world in an astonishingly quick fashion.Dahlia Katz/Supplied

  • Title: Chicho
  • Written and performed by: Augusto Bitter
  • Director: Claren Grosz
  • Company: Theatre Passe Muraille and Pencil Kit Productions
  • Venue: Theatre Passe Muraille’s backspace
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to March 24

Rating:

2 out of 4 stars

Augusto Bitter – an actor with a wiry body, expressive face and copious quantities of that hard-to-entirely-explain It-factor known as stage presence – has risen in stature in the Toronto theatre world in an astonishingly quick fashion.

Bitter leapt from a list of top 10 promising young theatre artists to a list of top 10 theatre artists, period, in the same magazine within a year – and that was before he caught this critic’s eye for his riveting performance as a petulant perpetrator of war crimes in The Monument at Factory Theatre last year. He’s entering that class of actor where you’ll go to see a show, whatever it might be, just because he’s in it.

Chicho, now on at Theatre Passe Muraille in its backspace, is a solo show by Bitter that has been in development for a couple years and is based on his own life as a “queer-Catholic-man-boy from Venezuela”. It’s a good calling card for the engaging performer and his talents. It also shows, however, that his writing is not quite yet up there with his acting.

A scattered show, Chicho presents a series of scenes in which Bitter plays a pair of alter-egos both named Chicho, representing two different sides of the actor’s own personality. (I think; the premise really needs to be set up in a less muddy way.)

Wearing a white polo shirt and conservative slacks, one Chicho grapples, somewhat earnestly, with what it means to be gay and Catholic, to be Venezuelan and Canadian, to speak Spanish and English and, sometimes, express himself most fully in Spanglish.

Stripping down to jean shorts and a red cap, and dancing his way lasciviously around the set, the other Chicho is more mischievous and plays “games” with the audience – as he talks about political decline in Venezuela, the inflation and the poverty and the repression there, from the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 through to the current power struggle between Nicolas Maduro and Juan Guaido.

“Name our current president,” he asks the audience as part of a pop quiz about his country of birth. “Trick question!”

The strongest scenes in Chicho are those that most resemble what you might find in a traditional solo show, one that might be classified as an “identity play”.

A pair of encounters with lovers – one white from Canada; the other “milky” brown from Latin America like Bitter – are written with empathy and insight and involve impressive total transformations by the actor from one line to the next as he shifts characters.

With the white lover, Chicho worries about the postcolonial power games he might be playing in bed; with the brown lover, he worries that the two have been sexually assimilated. “Do I know how to be gay in Spanish?” he asks.

Another finely written and acted scene sees Chicho in a confessional booth with a cool-guy Canadian priest named Chad – and is fascinating in its humanistic depiction of how modern clergy twist themselves into knots when trying to, in Christian parlance, love the sinner but not the sin with queer congregants.

In this production directed by Claren Grosz, Chicho’s more meta-theatrical elements are fun at first, but grow tiresome, the prime example being a series of conversations with an avocado.

There are other elements involving simulated masturbation and making a mess on stage that also seem like signs of a young artist insecure about holding an audience’s attention.

Chicho’s lack of a clear structure seems a purposeful, postmodern choice to avoid compressing a complicated life into a simplistic story. But it nevertheless makes the show hard to follow.

The political bits are too perfunctory – and you have to fill in a lot of blanks to understand, for instance, the part where one Chicho persona goes after the “lefty, politically correct” artistic community for having reflexively supported Chavez. Or does he? (This could be the subject of a whole show but feels sloughed off here.)

For some reason, Bitter saves a straight-forward explanation of who “Chicho” is for why his family left Venezuela in 2004 until the end, when he speaks more directly to the audience as himself.

This is becoming a bit of a new cliché by artists who, understandably, are trying to subvert the old clichés of the identity play.

We’ve seen this let’s-get-real moment most famously in Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up show Nanette (filmed for Netflix), but it’s also cropped up in two other TPM backspace shows of the past year, Jiv Parasram’s Take D Milk, Nah? and Janice Jo Lee’s Will You Be My Friend.

I appreciated that Bitter acknowledged in this moment that he was performing as much as he was earlier on. But Chicho would benefit from more matter with less art throughout.

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