Guillermo Calderón brings ‘Return of the Dragon’ to REDCAT

For Chilean playwright and director Guillermo Calderón, political theater is as much an investigation into a cause as it is an exploration into a mode of working. Artistic questions are inseparable from the societal conflicts and conundrums that give rise to them, as anyone who has seen “Neva,” “Diciembre,” “Villa” or another of his conceptually austere, theatrically playful works can attest.

The ethic is admirable: Without creative self-scrutiny, without examining how theatrical forms and collaborative methods might unwittingly shore up the status quo, there can be no progress or liberation.

In “The Return of the Dragon,” a brief yet potent video essay produced by Santiago’s Fundación Teatro a Mil, Calderón meditates on the relationship between politics and arts, the efficacy of political theater, and the role of the artist in times of social upheaval. The subject of the film, streaming this weekend in a co-presentation by REDCAT (Calderón’s main Los Angeles home) and ArtsEmerson, is “Dragón,” his most recent play, which premiered in Santiago in June 2019 and was supposed to tour this year in the U.S.

The COVID-19 pandemic scotched those plans, but Calderón has used this pause in international touring to reflect further on a piece of activist theater that intersected with history in an uncanny way. Written after “Mateluna” (which came to REDCAT in 2017), “Dragon” was haunted by that earlier show’s failure to effect real-world change.

Accused of bank robbery, Jorge Mateluna, a former guerrilla who assisted on the development of Calderón’s play “Escuela,” remained in prison after the play bearing his name brought international attention to his plight. As the group embarked on “Dragón,” there was a sharp awareness that a former colleague was still deprived of his freedom. Chastened, the group nevertheless took inspiration in the way their play about Mateluna incited others to take up his cause.

The experience of political theater moving from the stage to the streets provoked new thinking in creative activism. “Dragón,” which was informed by both the growing immigration crisis in Chile and the rise of “institutional fascism” in Brazil, involves a group of artists discussing these concerns at a restaurant in Plaza Italia, which became ground zero for the social uprising that took place in fall 2019.

A revolution, born out of student protests, brought forth the prospect of profound governmental reform. (Daniel Alarcón’s report last year in the New Yorker, “Chile at the Barricades,” provides invaluable context.) Plaza Italia, which in “Dragón” is the site where the immigrants discussed in the play are “abused and bloodied,” was just a few months later the scene of violent struggle between protesters and the police. (The square is now referred to as Plaza Dignidad, or Dignity Plaza.)

One of the narrators of “The Return of the Dragon” expresses the matter with quiet astonishment: “The fiction in the play became the reality of the revolution.” The film cuts back and forth between images from “Dragón” and images from the mass demonstrations against the neoliberal policies of President Sebastián Piñera. It’s not always easy to tell them apart.

If this was life imitating art, no one could claim to be in control of the plot. The pandemic, which imposed a different kind of curfew on the population, leaves the legacy of the revolution uncertain. The long, dark, dictatorial shadow of Gen. Augusto Pinochet hovers as the old struggle between justice and order intensifies in the concatenation of crises.

The colorful sights and galvanizing rhythms of the protests, as captured in “The Return of the Dragon,” are as stirring to witness as the intercultural parallels. The immigrants portrayed in “Dragón” have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic in much the same way as economically vulnerable communities have been bearing the brunt in the U.S. And just as no one knows about the post-pandemic durability of the changes set in motion by the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, the prospect of sweeping constitutional transformation in Chile is tenuous at best.

Calderón and his ensemble look forward to reengaging “Dragón” after the theaters reopen. But they know there’s no going back.

“We don’t want to return to the normalcy that existed before the revolution,” a narrator intones at the end. “We want to return to the normalcy of the revolution.”

‘The Return of the Dragon’

Where: Streaming via REDCAT

When: 5 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, Ends Sunday. Screenings will be followed by Zoom conversations with Calderón and University of Pennsylvania Latin American and Latinx Studies scholar Jennifer Thompson.

Tickets: $15


Running time: 23 minutes, not including post-show Zoom conversation.