CARACAS (Reuters) – A masked Venezuelan protester lies dying on a Caracas street, shot in the chest by a soldier who to his horror realizes he has killed his younger brother.
It could have been an episode from Venezuela’s protests last year – one of about 125 people who died in months of unrest that saw daily clashes between demonstrators and security forces.
Instead, it is a scene hundreds of Venezuelans have been paying to watch daily at an improvised theater in an old bingo hall, part of a wave of new productions reflecting on Venezuela’s political crisis and economic meltdown.
Each night for the past two months at Caracas’s once-glamorous Tamanaco shopping center local directors have staged recurring 15-minute plays in 30 “micro-theaters,” with space for several dozen tightly-packed viewers an arm’s length from the cast.
In “Alan”, 27-year-old Francisco Aguana plays the slain protester, narrating his childhood with his brother Alejandro, whom he called his hero for defending him from schoolyard bullies and an abusive step-father.
After Alejandro leaves to join the military, their mother gets sick but Alan cannot find the medicine she needs. So he takes to the streets in anger.
Aguana said he himself joined the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who spent months last year protesting President Nicolas Maduro’s government, denounced as a dictatorship by opponents.
“But honestly I feel the most powerful protest is here, performing this play,” he said, just before his first show of the night.
Some of the plays at the Tamanaco tell of Venezuelans’ grim realities, such as kidnappings at gun-point and hunger in the slums, while comedies poke fun at everyday nuisances.
In “Get In”, the audience crams into a narrow, sweaty space mimicking Caracas’s failing metro system. The actors squeeze through the crowd playing the metro’s common troublemakers, like the mobile phone robber and the ranting drunk.
In another micro-theater furnished to resemble one of Venezuela’s gang-controlled prisons, criminal leaders hold a rollicking dance-off to determine who is the boss, singing “we are the kings of this country” as they tout pistols and knives.
The plays are a sign of how the crisis has filtered into Venezuela’s popular culture. Youtube personalities make tongue-in-cheek “survival videos” and comedians fill stand-up venues with riffs against Venezuela’s political class. New novels on Venezuela’s fractured society line bookshelves.
‘LIKE A ROLLER COASTER’
The micro-theater concept took off in 2009 from a converted former brothel in Madrid and has since spread across the Americas.
It has rapidly gained popularity in crime-ridden Caracas as young people thrill at a safe space where they can relax in the evening, sipping mojitos and eating hot-dogs during intervals as reggaeton blares.
“It’s like a roller coaster. You laugh, you cry, you reflect,” said Dairo Pineres, the micro-theaters’ coordinator.
Since the season started in April tens of thousands of Venezuelans have paid 140,000 bolivars, about 8 U.S. cents on the black market, to see the micro-theaters, according to Pineres. And next season he wants even more people to come.
For Jeizer Ruiz, the 21-year-old star of “The Little Chickens Say”, theater is a welcome bastion for free expression in Venezuela’s increasingly repressive atmosphere.
Ruiz plays 16-year-old Luis Ramon Sanchez, who grows up in a family torn apart by violence. He turns into a drug-dealer in a slum, before taking revenge on the father who killed his mother.
Alone in jail, the skeletal Luis sings a well-known Venezuelan nursery rhyme: “The little chickens go ‘tweet, tweet, tweet,’ when they’re hungry and when they’re cold.”
Ruiz, who lives in Caracas’s wealthy Caurimare neighborhood, said the play helped him understand the reality faced by the majority of Venezuelans the crisis has plunged into poverty, struggling with widespread shortages of food and medicine.
“In the theater, we have the opportunity to say, look, this is happening here, this is happening in Venezuela.”
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Dan Flynn