Credit: Handout photo by Stan Weinstein

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Before García Márquez was Gabo, the larger-than-life literary figure—whose exploits included going spearfishing with Fidel Castro, providing legal counsel to the Sandinistas, and getting punched in the face by Mario Vargas Llosa—he was a humble beat reporter. It was then that he honed the skills that served him best as a novelist, observing the peculiarities of small town life. In particular, it was life in the isolated villages of Colombia’s Caribbean coast where he grew up, reported, and eventually memorialized in his fiction as surreal, backwards, and a little bit crazy.

1981’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold was one of his later works, breaking a 10-year self-imposed exile from writing in protest of Latin America’s turn to military rule. By this time, his wondrous portrayal of the fictional village Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude seemed to have transformed into something more bitter. Chronicle’s village is nothing magical, just a backwater of nasty people pathologically obsessed with status and honor. Chronicle is more narrowly focused and dialogue heavy, making for a much better stage adaptation than his sprawling first novel would.

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This version, by Jorge Alí Triana, stays true to the book, notably its jumping around in time, a potentially confusing feature handled adeptly by director José Zayas. Though written like a police procedural, Chronicle makes for a pretty bad murder mystery, since the crime is laid out in the title alone and the perpetrators are revealed not long into the story. Rather, Gabo was more concerned with the notion of collective guilt and what makes an entire village turn a blind eye to something so horrific as an honor killing. Zayas makes this indictment all the more searing on stage, with a cast of folksy but not particularly lovable villagers, ominous lighting, and a skeletal set of rough hewn wood structures (a church, a store, a cockfighting ring, all seemingly picked apart by vultures).

GALA’s talented actors play well to what one would think of as stock characters, were Chronicle not based on a true story: the poor, devout mother; the headstrong daughter who resists an arranged marriage; the mysterious noble who shows up in town and starts throwing money around. For a Spanish-language play (with English surtitles) set in Colombia, only one of the cast has an identifiably Colombian (in her case, paisa) accent, Inés Domínguez del Corral, reflective of the international casting from such varied countries as Mexico, Panama, Spain, Chile, and Peru. As Angela, she puts on an impressive performance of a character who is taken advantage of and yet pretty unsympathetic: She is forced into marriage with the mysterious noble, then cast aside when her new husband finds she is not a virgin. However when her family demands to know the man who took her honor, she names an innocent, Santiago Nasar, which starts the whole ball rolling toward his murder.

That this murder wasn’t inevitable but entirely preventable is Chronicle’s most stinging critique. Nasar, played as a woeful naif by Nicolás Carrá, blithely wanders around what all of his neighbors know, but nobody warns him that it will be the last day of his life. Even his killers, Angela’s honor-bound brothers (Edwin Bernal and José González) don’t really want to do it, and nervously call out their murderous intentions to anyone who will listen in hopes someone will ferry him to safety while still saving face. And after Nasar is dying with his guts out, no one will take responsibility: not the family, not the priest, not the mayor, all of whom were in on it. Chronicle is a sneer at small town small minds, a story that only someone who grew up there and left could make. But given the avoidable nature of the crime, it’s a sneer that feels justified.

3333 14th St. NW. $20-$42. (202) 234-7174. galatheatre.org