Villa Grimaldi, on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, is a quiet spot. There’s a rose garden, and a majestic view of the snow-capped Andes. But during the Pinochet regime, Grimaldi was the site of a notorious detention center, where Chilean secret police tortured, and sometimes killed, political prisoners. The legacy of that horror — how to remember it, whether to forget it — forms the subject of Villa, a smart, ironic drama written and directed by Guillermo Calderón, and produced in its English language premiere by The Play Company.
Calderón, one of Chile’s most celebrated playwrights, has created a body of intelligent, wryly funny work that probes Chilean life under and after the military dictatorship. New Yorkers might remember his dark comedies Escuela, Diciembre, and Neva, presented at the Public in recent years, all of which commented, directly or obliquely, on Chilean history while offering smart, humorous perspectives on collective action and national identity.
In the fictional events of the play, three young women (Crystal Finn, Vivia Font, and Harmony Stempel) form a special committee deputized to plan Villa Grimaldi’s future. Should the detention center be reconstructed precisely, down to the instruments of torture and the sickening smell? Or should it be rebuilt as a gleaming art museum, with installations indirectly recalling the site’s former identity? (The real Grimaldi, which closed in 1978, has been open as a memorial since the mid-Nineties; its design combines partial reconstructions and mismatched monuments.) The committee casts ballot after ballot, hoping for a majority, but someone keeps sabotaging the vote with a write-in — Marichiweu, a rallying cry of the indigenous Mapuche in their struggle for rights and recognition, a movement that emerged forcefully in the years after Pinochet’s fall. The rogue vote is a wrench in the works, a suggestion that, in a country where regime officials went largely unpunished, sanctioned memorializing amounts to capitulation.
Huddled around a scale model of the villa, the women advocate possible plans, their impassioned proposals growing surreal and dystopian. Perhaps the buildings should be demolished in favor of a beautiful field, where visitors could pleasantly picnic while imagining the site’s legacy of torture. Perhaps the hypothetical museum could house a live German shepherd as testament to the detention center’s guard dogs, which at least one prisoner alleged were used as torture devices. Adding a tinge of farce to the proceedings, the committee members take turns visiting the bathroom and gossiping savagely about each colleague in her absence.
This combination — gruesome humor paired with deep insight — is what Calderón does best. The women’s hypothetical visions raise unanswerable questions about whether trauma can ever be responsibly remembered, or really forgotten. They forge reality and fantasy into theatrical richness — a deeper kind than the play’s ultimate moment of truth, when we learn why these particular women were chosen for such a momentous task.
But just when Villa veers toward the literal, metaphor reappears. The set begins to shake, water glasses tumble and smash, and the women back, terrified, toward the walls. It’s an earthquake. But it’s also an image for the larger, uncontrollable forces at stake in confronting collective trauma: for the emotions and memories that can’t be captured by monuments or plaques, and that still have the power to shake walls.
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