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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.