Visitors to Bolivia who enter from Peru via Lake Titicaca will be surprised to learn the landlocked country has a navy, right there on the world’s highest navigable lake. It’s a legacy of the 1879 to 1883 War of the Pacific, which left Chile with an even longer coastline than it needed, Peru with a shorter one, and poor Bolivia with none at all. The war remains a source of acrimony among the Andean neighbors today. Bolivia’s naval base features a mural of Jesus guiding a ship; an inscription reads, “Access to the sea is our right, recovering it is our duty.”
Chile’s notorious land grab sets the stage for Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Señorita de Tacna (The Young Lady from Tacna), which opens in the postwar but still-occupied Peruvian border city of Tacna. Vargas Llosa’s first play, which he wrote in 1981, is an exercise in historical revisionism, albeit one concerned with family rather than national history. Still, Peru’s literary hero couldn’t help but take a couple of jabs at the bully to the south, enough that director José Carrasquillo felt he had to issue to the audience a some-of-my-best-friends-are-Chilean disclaimer.
Those jabs come in the form of the sleazy Chilean military officer, Joaquín, who sets the whole sordid mess into motion. Played by Victor Maldonado with a weird accent, he’s the only weak link in an otherwise well-acted production dominated by Luz Nicolás as Elvira aka Mamaé, the object of his affection. She’s sweet and innocent, he’s got another woman on the side: a sultry “Indian” who looks more like a fortune teller from Carmen, played with stock exotic otherness by Andrea Aranguren. Elvira discovers Joaquin’s two-timing after a visit from the “bad woman,” breaks off their engagement, and vows never to marry.
This may or may not be the story behind Vargas Llosa’s real-life spinster aunt, around whom he constructed this family legend. But questions about sexuality, mortality, and pride are more important to the author than what exactly happened when and to whom. Humbly, Vargas Llosa gets his own role as aspiring poet Belisario (Carlos Castillo), whom everyone warns is destined to fail in his chosen career (he sure showed them!). And true to the playwright, Belisario observes/invents his aunt’s past while smirking at 19th-century mores from a semi-enlightened 20th-century perch that makes Vargas Llosa’s deep conservatism appear relatively progressive.
The real question, though, is if the audience will follow a story and main character that bounce back and forth 70 years. So the play hinges on Nicolás, who convincingly transforms from teenage naïf to brittle old woman without the aid of any Benjamin Button makeup. Her performance is enough to paper over the jarring transitions, unclear secondary character developments, and loose ends that don’t quite get tied up. It’s the type of mystery that doesn’t really need solving (Why did so-and-so never get married? Maybe because she didn’t want to and mind your own business?) for anyone but the author. But if you could dress up every old family story with dashing foreign occupiers and sexy Indians, you might be a Nobel laureate, too.