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Thursday, August 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Survivors forge a beautiful bond in University Theatre's Pedro and the War Cantata
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Dominique Chestand, left, Karl Iglesias and Yeng Kong Thao in University Theatre's <i>Pedro and the War Cantata</i>.
Dominique Chestand, left, Karl Iglesias and Yeng Kong Thao in University Theatre's Pedro and the War Cantata.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

The closest most Americans get to Argentinean theater is catching Eva Perón on the balcony of the Casa Rosada in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical theater classic. But the South American nation has a long history of producing thoughtful playwrights like Manuel Puig, who adapted his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman for the stage, and the celebrated Griselda Gambaro, who has written extensively on the political violence of the 1970s and 1980s in her homeland.

We can add María Inés Falconi to the list with the English-language premiere of her award-winning Pedro and the War Cantata by University Theater. This Theatre for Youth production does an excellent job of dealing with heavy themes -- war, fear and survival. It opened Friday at the Hemsley Theatre in UW's Vilas Hall.

After a confusing start in which the five-actor ensemble engages in stylized warm-ups vaguely reminiscent of martial arts, the performance introduces us to the title character's "village with lots of sheep and few people," in an unnamed Latin American country. Pedro is a young boy, played believably by slight-of-build UW senior Yeng Kong Thao. Pedro is just beginning to ask heavy questions like "What's a war?" and "Why do people kill each other if they are going to die anyway?"

When the villagers learn from the only TV in town that their country has entered into an armed conflict with another nation, it's at first business as usual for everyone, despite the constant sound of warplanes overhead. The play does not shy from touching upon the heartbreaking reality of children living in a combat zone.

Then the unthinkable occurs when Pedro's schoolhouse is bombed. With loud sound and flashing lights, it's a scene that may be genuinely frightening for audience members on the younger end of the recommended fourth through sixth grade spectrum.

When Pedro regains consciousness, he finds he is trapped in the rubble with Don Jose, the school's elderly handyman, and the heart of the play unfolds. With a sweet exchange of stories meant to entertain, maintain spirits and keep them awake in hopes of rescue, the survivors forge a beautiful, poignant bond.

The whole ensemble does an admirable job peppering in Spanish words and phrases, in multiple dialects, giving the production a pan-Latin American feel. Theater major Karl Iglesias as Don Jose is especially skilled at shifting between the two languages. The musical numbers, inspired by the original Argentinean production but composed by the cast, go a long way in creating emotional resonance.

Pedro is a walk on the darker side. What kids and adults alike will learn from it is that even in the horror and bleakness of war, the human spirit is resilient, and the imagination is an incredibly powerful tool for survival.

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