Review: El Retorno/I Return (The RISER Project and Why Not Theatre)

Photo of Ximena Huizi and Augusto Bitter El Retorno/I Return is “a stroke of beauty” on the Toronto stage

The fight for justice and freedom is not easily defined for families fleeing conflict. In El Retorno/I Return, part of Why Not Theatre’s Riser Project playing at the Theatre Centre, tells the semi-autobiographical story of a family reflecting on their decision to remain in Canada instead of returning to Chile as part of The Return Plan—an international push against Chilean dictator Pinochet.

El Retorno/I Return personalizes the struggle of political refugees, making a complex question—how do you fight for the freedom and peace of your country— into a simple, but hard-hitting, family drama.

In 1979, Jaime (Alejandro Ampudia) and Veronica Fuenzalida (Anita La Selva) bring their two daughters Marisol (Ximena Huizi) and Carolina (Sofia Rodriguez) to Europe. Both parents intend to participate in The Return Plan, but their plans begin to fall apart as they try to figure out how their children fit into revolution.

Director and writer Marilo Nuñez cleverly intertwines the colonial history of Chile and the lives of Jaime and Veronica, pre-Pinochet, through the lens of childhood games. Marisol and Carolina, joined by their schoolyard friend (and fellow Chilean in exile) Chinito (Augusto Bitter), playact wars, murder, and political arrests through choreographed dance sequences doubled with projections using shadow puppets. As my guest pointed out, it was an excellent use of multimedia in performance.

Huizi, Rodriguez, and Bitter switch back and forth with ease between adults in a terrifying situation and children who don’t understand the games they’re playing. It’s tragic and comic in equal turns. The levity, my friend commented, was definitely needed at moments, especially as the parents slowly realized they might be choosing between doing the right thing for their country and doing the right thing for their children.

What El Retorno/I Return captures beautifully is that moral choices like these are never going to be easy, and that sometimes being selfish is the selfless decision. The climax of the play is pointedly anticlimactic. The events presented aren’t a tragedy but a series of questions: what’s important? What does being involved in a political movement actually mean? And in times of social turmoil, is it possible to balance the personal and political?

The play’s final speech is delivered by Jaime, entirely in Spanish. I only understood about one word in ten, but it’s a very powerful moment where a political march is displayed on the two screens behind him.

While the show is initially framed from Marisol’s perspective, I think there is something powerful about the way El Retorno/I Return breaks down individual memories. It’s not about how one person experienced these moments, but how a family’s differing feelings and opinions coalesced into a singular moment.

Their struggle in exile, in remaining true to their country, in finding their place in Canada, is part of a much larger story. In a stroke of beauty, El Retorno/I Return suggests that it’s not the right or righteous choice that will define people, but rather the ‘best’ decision they can make with what they have.

Details

  • I Return/El Retorno plays until May 13th at the Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday. Show times alternate between 7:00pm and 9:30pm. Please see show times for each date here.
  • Tickets are $15 for a ticket to a single show or $20 for an additional ticket to a second RISER Project show.
  • Tickets can be purchased in person at the Theatre Centre box office prior to show, by phone at 416-538-0988, or online here.

Photo of Ximena Huizi and Augusto Bitter courtesy The RISER Project and Why Not Theatre.

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