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CASA Festival reviews: Aparte by Colectivo Alebrije

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Natalie Clarke reviews Aparte, a visceral breakdown of the importance of skin through the narrative of the leather-making district of Mexico’s León city. The play was put on as part of London’s CASA Latin American Theatre Festival 2015.

The three cast members begin their performance and we are immediately confronted with a personal story. They introduce their skin as the focus, colouring it with markers and showing us their tattoos, which sets up the improvised and relaxed feel of the play. Everything is controlled from a laptop on stage and an old school overhead projector is put to use. This is their story, and they are choosing to tell you it as a friend.

They carry on in an almost documentary-like fashion, first giving us a detailed account of the biological attributes of skin, and then a video-assisted explanation of how animal skin is made into leather. Still with their own skin exposed during the video backdrop, they are able to visually make the connection between themselves and the animals. Their skin – covered in tattoos and coloured in – defines them, just like animal skin defines this district of León and its community of people.

The play uses the biological and emotional duality of skin expertly. After a heavy factual section on the function of skin, one character, Kuake, asks: “what is skin to you?”  The audience offers “protection” as the prominent answer. The play then points to the importance of skin for human interaction: “to me, skin is a hug, a kiss; it is warmth.” Here we understand the dual significance of skin: it is both something internal (a barrier that holds our biological form together), and external (our first point of contact with the outside world, with other people and with our community). This idea is paralleled in the situation of León: now the leather trade is dying there, its community cannot function as it always has; without its skin, its internal organs do not work.

This concept of the skin being what holds things together, both internally and externally, is reiterated in video interviews with inhabitants from León. We see the sadness and loss of community felt as a result of the influx of bigger leather-making firms. Though primary footage is classically ‘truthful’, for me this use of technology detracted from the narrative somewhat. The company seemed to excel when exploring its ideas in more abstract ways, for example during the mastectomy that character Oscar performed on himself. That scene drew everything of importance together: the fragility of skin, our emotional attachment to it and its impact on others.

Aparte is a play with amazing heart. In my opinion, its moments of brilliance were found in the live performance, rather than its pre-shot videos and organised slides. As such, I feel the story could have been better conveyed without the employment of technology. That being said, the difficultly I found in connecting emotionally with the non-live sections may well have been down to the language issue. Being a non-Spanish speaker, I was frantically reading the surtitles to keep up. Furthermore, the casual nature of the play – which is what made it brilliant – actually meant it was very hard to translate in general. Improvised moments were the most memorable, one highlight being when Oscar moved rapidly to a backdrop of skinned animals while Kuare shouted “the skin is blue, the skin is blue” over and over again. The surtitles read something quite different.