The roar of battle fills the darkness at the outset of La Granada (“The Hand Grenade”), and the opening image is of a panicked soldier scrambling up a cliff, illuminated by the red glow of munitions fire. But realism is hardly the order of the day in Rodolfo Walsh’s hilariously sobering look at military madness.
Closer inspection reveals that Walsh is venturing into absurdist territory. The cliff turns out to be the rear edge of what seems a gigantic handkerchief suspended from its corners. The soldier’s military uniform isn’t khaki, but canary-yellow. So are those of the dandified Lt. Strauss (Hugo Medrano), who watches him through carnival spyglasses with eyes painted on the lenses, and the Sergeant (Luis Caram), who wears a French maid’s apron over his belt and brandishes a feather duster rather than a pistol.
Jose Carrasquillo’s sharp, satiric staging calibrates a nifty balance between these farcical images and the war horrors they’re meant to burlesque, doing so with wit, imagination, and considerable professional gloss. Gala Hispanic Theatre’s talents have seldom been showcased to such advantage.
La Granada’s plot concerns an Argentine infantryman named Gutierrez (Jaime Carrillo) who is preparing to toss a powerful new grenade in a training exercise for the first time when its timing mechanism splinters, leaving him with his thumb on the detonation spring. If he lets go, even just to throw the grenade, everything for 30 meters in all directions, including him, will be destroyed.
Panicked, he does what any good soldier would: He takes the dilemma to his superiors. They take one look at the position of his thumb and realize they have a problem. And when their short-term solution—placing armed guards a bit more than 30 meters from this walking time bomb and ordering him not to fall asleep—allows word of his predicament to spread to his fellow soldiers, the problem grows exponentially. Soon, every infantryman is terrified of the new grenades, and a military prosecutor is hauling a dumbfounded, sleepy, and still terrified Gutierrez into court to accuse him of deliberately fomenting all this trouble to undermine army morale.
Silly plot turns are matched by Walsh’s wryly philosophical turns of phrase (“In a way we all carry a grenade [within]; you know where yours is, which gives you an advantage”), and Carrasquillo’s staging piles on lots of vaudeville-inspired clowning, as when a detonations expert in a lime-green wig and slap shoes makes Gutierrez put his grenade hand in a flimsy birdcage for safety’s sake.
But there are also moments of seriousness. While spending a thumb-sore night, isolated under spotlights in a field, the dejected soldier keeps drifting toward slumber, and when his mother appears to him in a half-waking dream, swathed in ghostly white with the heads of infants dangling from her gown (“I’m the ledger….My body is scarred from all your violence”), there’s clearly no joke intended. Costumer Alessandra D’Ovidio has her wear a white kerchief on her brow, an emblem associated with the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the mothers who held vigils for their “disappeared” children during Argentina’s most recent military dictatorship. This costuming fillip is one of many touches apparently designed to update and universalize a script written in 1965. (The Madres began their vigils more than a decade later.) At another point, patrons will be hard pressed not to think of Kosovo when a character glances skyward upon hearing the sound of jets and utters a relieved, “NATO!…can’t hit anything smaller than a city.”
All of which seems in keeping with the intentions of an author who is at least as celebrated in Argentina for his political views and investigative reporting as for his plays. In the ’50s, Walsh wrote two volumes of novelistic journalism (that predate such similar works as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood), and he spent much of his literary career chronicling episodes of military thuggery before falling victim to the very practices he was exposing. On March 24, 1977, he published an open letter laying out the abuses of Argentina’s ruling military junta, which was then kidnapping, killing, and exiling thousands of intellectuals in an attempt to obliterate the left end of Argentina’s political spectrum. A day later, a squad of government thugs ambushed Walsh in Buenos Aires, and he joined the ranks of the “disappeared.”
La Granada springs from a less anxious period in Argentine history, when the military was not entirely unfettered and political dissent could be expressed through humor. Walsh, a Marxist, told interviewers he would be satisfied if his books proved influential with union leaders, but he was always looking for acceptance further down the political food chain. Writing for the theater made his ideas more accessible to working-class people, and La Granada finds him writing in a broadly popular vein—ridiculing bureaucrats and the military, championing the little guy.
Still, he does the latter with eyes wide open, depicting Gutierrez as a decidedly imperfect cog in a military machine hellbent on grinding him to bits. He’s sweet but hardly guileless, even if his dilemma does make him a victim of military incompetence. Carrillo’s portrayal is wonderfully comic, especially when the character lapses into sobbing, which he does at regular intervals. Also fine is Vera Soltero in four roles: as the tragic mother, giddy girlfriend, clownish demolitions expert, and solomonic judge who cause the protagonist much anxiety. Caram is broadly effective in his second role as a conspiracy-obsessed prosecutor, and Medrano, wearing a handlebar moustache and a persona modeled on the late Argentine comedian Alberto Olmedo, is amusing as a by-the-books military man.
They’re all spiffy in D’Ovidio’s crayon-colored costumes (even if dressing a whole army in a color associated with cowardice is laying things on a bit thick) lit with hard-edged precision by Ayun Fedorcha. Sound designer Ron Oshima’s distant explosions and soaring jets are also an asset, and Tony Cisek’s nonrepresentational setting—pretty much the definitive rendering of a Beckettian void—stands in splendidly for everything from battlefield to courtroom.
It should go without saying that Gala, which operates on a limited budget, is better equipped to produce this sort of modernist production than to mount the set- and costume-heavy classical dramas it usually favors. Walsh, of course, is hardly the audience-drawing brand name that, say, Lope de Vega is. Still, if the company has any sense, future productions, of whatever provenance, will at least take a cue from La Granada’s elegantly spare design work. And Carrasquillo will be brought back soon…and often. CP