Fuse Theater Review: “Historia de Amor” at ArtsEmerson — Daring and Unsparing Theater

Based on a graphic novel, the brilliant Historia de Amor is unrelenting in its darkness. It’s as if we’re swimming — no, make that drowning — in a pool of India ink.

Historia de Amor, based on the graphic novel by Regis Jauffret. Directed by Juan Carlos Zagal. Produced by Teatrocinema. Staged by ArtsEmerson, Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, MA, through April 24.

Photo: Montserrat Quezada A

A scene from Teatrocinema’s “Historia de Amor.” Photo: Montserrat Quezada A.

By Robert Israel

I walked away from the production like Historia de Amor with stirred, uneasy emotions. Originally written in French, it is performed in Spanish by the Chilean troupe Teatrocinema, with English subtitles. Yet the troika of languages is secondary: the primary effort here is to remain faithful to a published graphic novel, complete with comic panels and bold ink strokes. Even the actors — Julian Marras and Bernadita Montero — bow to the weight of the ink, the pen, and the paper. Their job is to make the comic panels come to life on a screen before us. The conspiracy works, admirably.

The production is daring and unsparing. It is performed without intermission over the course of one hour and forty minutes, yet it feels longer, a dreamlike, almost immeasurable, duration. And it is unrelenting in its darkness. It’s as if we’re swimming — no, make that drowning — in a pool of India ink.

The disturbing story focuses on a man so crazy about a woman that he meets by chance that he stalks her and he violates her, repeatedly, until she finally succumbs to his sexual domination and his madness. It is about amour fou, a state of obsessive craziness the French have long romanticized about. Nineteenth century French poet Baudelaire wrote about this form of torrid sexual intoxication in his book of prose poems Paris Spleen. Graphic novelist Jauffret, a century later, pays homage to Baudelaire. Yet while the French writer experienced moments of unnatural bliss by toking on an opium pipe, the man and woman in this play are too far-gone to feel the effects of anything that resembles a stoned reverie. They are trapped in a deadly cycle of violence that unfolds and finally engulfs them.

Historia de Amor serves up a sociopathic vision, a hallucinogenic dream gone bad. There is no light, except an occasional glimpse of morning that appears on the screen as if by accident. Most of the animated panels — that the two actors move freely about within and against — are set during the nighttime. Yes, the experience is creepy. Yes, there are scenes that make us squirm. But the violence depicted is never gratuitous: it emits an authentic acrid stench.

Director Zagal, the night I attended, played keyboards and, with the help of assistants, added other sound effects. It was similar to seeing a silent movie with live music accompaniment. Given its rococo walls and gilded seraphim, the Cutler Majestic is a perfect setting to experience this intense, post-modern version of Phantom of the Opera. There are no spoilers here: you should attend before this run ends.

It would be apt to compare Historia de Amor with another graphic novel brought to life, the 2005 film History of Violence, written by John Wagner and Vince Locke, directed by David Cronenberg. That film, like this production, captured the madness of violence and how it utterly destroys love. Yet Historie de Amor goes further because, unlike History of Violence, it is not in color. As the nineteenth century English writer Thomas Carlyle once wrote, this piece personifies “the blackness of darkness.”

Without light there is no escape from the darkness. This story of love is haunting. And it will stay with you long after the final curtain.

Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.


  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on April 22, 2016 at 11:48 pm

    I just came back from seeing Historia de Amor and felt such a strong dislike for the show that I must warn readers away. Bob is very, very wrong here (Baudelaire in a pig’s eye), aside from being excited by the cinematic, multi-screen, virtual reality technique used by Chile’s Teatrocinema in the production. But beneath the visual sophistication is a disturblingly misogynistic vision. Attempts to explain away the show’s anti-female barbarity by suggesting that it is some sort of political/feminist allegory (Chilean dictatorship, protesting the abuse of women) won’t fly. These facile excuses can’t cover up the narrative’s elemental inhumanity, its depiction of a rape fantasy in which the victim apparently becomes complicit in (perhaps responsible for?) her degradation.

    Historia de Amor is told from the point of view of a sociopath who repeatedly rapes a young woman — all the while stalking and physically abusing her. His victim is not given a voice; we are stuck, for about an hour and forty minutes, in the boring consciousness of an emotionally desiccated monomaniac (we are far from Dostoevsky here, closer to pornography). We have to guess at just what motivates the woman’s slow descent into Stockhausen syndrome. It is her voicelessness (a choice made by the creators) that is unforgivable. I usually welcome theater works that challenge audiences — but when the company writes in the program that this is “an attempt to encompass humanity’s darkest impulses, but also our collective drive toward acceptance and love” it can only be talking about the banal male character — the female character is reduced to mute victimhood, passively surrendering to her fate. Perhaps society has abandoned her — but so has Teatrocinema, compounding the crime with exploitation.

    If Arts Emerson wants to get audiences talking about the opportunistic politics of art, virulent misogyny, and the cultural blindness of major artistic institutions, so be it. But at the talkback with the director and artists on the night of the production I attended, none of those issues were brought up. Just questions about Teatrocinema’s razzle-dazzle techniques. Perhaps no one dared to address the distasteful elephant in the room – the reasons for creating the pernicious drivel we had just seen.

    • Ami Albernaz on April 23, 2016 at 1:43 pm

      I saw last night’s performance, and I agree with your comments, Bill. The visual aspects were very impressive, but the underlying story and Sofia’s passivity and objectification were maddening.

      • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on April 24, 2016 at 11:14 am

        Thanks — I would add that it is not just Sofia’s passivity that is troublesome. It is that we are not given the chance to understand her actions because, unlike the male, we are not taken into her thoughts. I want to understand why a woman would do what she does in this play — but we are denied that. It is easier to turn her into creature to be tormented without the dignity of a voice …

  2. Ian Thal on April 27, 2016 at 11:21 am

    I was intrigued by the promotional materials surrounding the design (especially since I am fascinated by the comics medium — something I should make a point of writing about in the future) but was unable to attend the press opening due to personal commitments.

    Consequently, reading Bob’s review and Bill’s response, I am reminded of critical discussions about the comic book medium: Alan Moore is often credited with bringing a new literary sophistication to the medium — often by deconstructing the conventions of the more popular genres or by examining the consequences of violence and power — but the only lesson most of his imitators learned was to cater to the adolescent male gaze with more graphic violence and blatant misogyny.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts