Colombian Play Defies Politics

American repertory Theatre

THE KEENING
LOCATION: Zero Arrow Theatre
DATES: October 14 - November 12
DIRECTOR: Nicolás Montero
SET AND CONSTUME DESIGNER: Alejandro Luna

On a stage with few props and very small set, a woman (Marissa Chibas) makes preparations for an unknown event. As she mops the floor, lights candles, and tears flower petals, she talks about her life so far.

That brief description sums up “The Keening,” an American Repertory Theatre production playing at the Zero Arrow Theater through Nov. 12, but it doesn’t give any sense of its impact. By narrating events in her life much like we recall events in our own lives—with a sense of chronology, but without an overarching narrative structure—the unnamed single character personally imbues more feeling into the climactic events of the play than if the play’s structure had been overtly driving towards them all along.

The play’s title is a testament both to the main character’s occupation as a professional mourner, or “keener,” and to the grief she feels over the climactic events of the play, which linger enigmatically in the background of her entire monologue but are only made clear in the last third. It is finally revealed that a paramilitary group has slaughtered a group of men in the women’s home village. Upon discovering that her son was involved in the plot, the woman must wrestle with her profound heartache and resolve for action.

Her relationship to death is thus a complex one, because she is intimately connected with it, and feeling sincere grief is part of her job. She struggles with the question of whether she is able to feel real grief and if it is different from the grief she feels every day.

The production’s program explicitly states that “The Keening” is about political unrest in Colombia. Thus, going in, I expected an issue play—one which, though it would make good points and make me feel vaguely guilty for being American, wouldn’t succeed as a stand-alone drama. I was wrong. It is both less and more than that.

Less, because most of the play is about fairly mundane events: the bulk of the woman’s narrative focuses on her marriage to a much older man, his death, her subsequent employments and romances, her friendships, and the places that she lived. The political elements first creep into the play near its end—in the brief mentions of her son’s mysterious activities—and then become overwhelming and tragic in the last 20 minutes.

But “The Keening” is also more than a simple issue play, for the same reasons. The woman’s simple but eventful life, eloquently told without any overt action onstage, is ultimately far more affecting and natural than a play with a single focus and outright onstage violence would have been. We are lulled into the woman’s unhurried, calm yet expressive way of thinking and speaking, so that when intense emotions do break into the story, they are felt rather than observed.

This emotional balance is maintained admirably throughout, only losing its hold and becoming somewhat overdramatic at the very end, when the woman prepares for an act severely inconsistent with the tone of the play. A more subtle resolution may have been more effective.

As the only actress continuously onstage for the entire hour and forty-five minutes of the production, Chibas is charged with conveying all the humor and grief of the play, and she does an admirable job of engaging the audience and creating interest in the life of the woman. She portrays the woman’s complexity of emotion without misstep, avoiding the temptation to overplay the intense aspects of the script.

“The Keening” is a document of modern life in Colombia, but not a histrionic one. It portrays both the mundane and the shocking, the joyful and the tragic. By doing so with restraint and humor, playwright Humberto Dorado has managed to create a play that stands above its politics.