San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1995
Steve Winn

War of Minds Puts Chile on Trial in Jara
The Chilean police interrogator's bare lightbulb glares in your eyes and the smoke of his cigarettes drifts right past your face during ``Where Were You When They Killed Victor Jara?'' So does the smell of a black-olive pizza from the next table. This up-close political version of dinner theater is at La Val's Subterranean, a 74-seat cabaret in the basement of a beer- and-pizza hall just off the UC Berkeley campus on Euclid Avenue. The low-ceilinged quarters and college ambience are well-suited to Deborah Rogin's dramatic inquiry into the murder of Chile's popular folk singer during that country's bloody 1973 military coup. At a recent performance the audience seemed intently focused on the Shotgun Players' production, apparently oblivious to the din from a televised basketball game upstairs. Rogin's intelligent if somewhat overwrought historical stage fiction requires close attention. Set in 1984, the two-character work is a kind of psychological war game pitting a young military intelligence officer (Patrick Dooley as Paul) against a graying, corpulent musician (Lance Brady as Rafael) who's been hauled in for questioning.

Tunnel of Lies
Using guilt, Irish whiskey, insinuating friendship, a well-researched dossier, death threats and some sleight-of-hand with a pack of cigarettes as his weapons, Paul tries to break Rafael from keeping the flame of the martyred Jara alive. The two enter a tunnel of lies, self-deceptions and self-recriminations that lock them to gether in the shared nightmare of Pinochet's Chile. Rogin, who is best and most recently known for her adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston's ``The Woman Warrior'' at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, sets some potent speculations in motion. The play touches on the analogies between nations and families, the dangers of denying the past, the legacies of repression and torture and the notion of politics as a kind of Beckettian end-game. In its most bracing moments, Victor Jara is suspenseful and involving. When Paul hammers the title question over and over again at Rafael, he's also peering into himself and his own family's complicity in the stifling of Chile's spirit. The muscle that jumps nervously in Dooley's jaw is a younger man's version of Brady's slumped shoulders and vacant gaze. But ``Victor Jara'' also pushes the con nections between the two characters too hard, sacrificing the nerve-racking credibility of an interrogation to make the point that these two antagonists have an awful lot in common. ``Families!'' Paul exclaims in disgust at one point, bold-facing a theme that already had been abundantly explored.

Peeling Away Defense
Rogin is quite good at making the grueling repetition of the encounter pay off dramatically, as the layers of Rafael's defenses peel away under Paul's assault. Brady, in the play's more demanding role, is only partly successful in tracking the character's breakdown as it happens. In the early stages, when Rafael is forthrightly self-abasing about his diminished career as a voice-over musician for soap commercials, he gives off a certain blasted nobility. Later on, gripping his ringing head in terror as he undergoes a kind of psychic disorientation, Brady lacks emotional range and edge. Dooley catches the mix of youthful relish and early-onset cynicism in Paul. He's discovered, he says with a bitter sense of triumph, that he's ``very good'' at interrogations. Dooley gets a little too deliberate at times, when he's ``performing'' for his superiors on tape or turning up the taunts at Rafael. But the actor's pose of haughty detachment makes him seem just like what Paul is -- a young man who realizes how much of his past and his soul are irretrievably lost. Director Stan Spenger's production is about as simple as it can get -- a desk, a chair, the lightbulb and a few props. Where Were You When They Killed Victor Jara? continues at 1834 Euclid Avenue in North Berkeley through February 11.