Virginia Urdaneta (L) performs during the play Pa Lante
Caracas - AFP
Stage left is Josefina, a rough-talking working girl; stage right, Sofia, a swankily dressed bourgeois who has fallen on hard times.
The two characters in Venezuelan playwright Virginia Urdaneta's new play come together doing something that real people in her homeland spend long hours doing, across the country, every day: waiting in line to buy scarce products from barren supermarket shelves.
As the South American oil giant has gone from boom to bust in recent years, shortages, violent crime and the temptation to move abroad have become inescapable markers of Venezuelans' daily reality.
That is driving a new wave of drama in the nation's tiny privately owned theaters, where the tribulations of life in the economic crisis are giving rise to acerbic, often darkly funny plays.
The trend is an antidote to Venezuela's mainstream theater scene. Light comedies are the standard fare in the country's main theaters, which are all owned by the socialist government.
The new plays revolve around themes like spending the day in line to buy basic goods, only to find that prices have shot up overnight.
"Venezuela is living a moment of pure absurdity. We barter coffee for shampoo," said Urdaneta, who wrote and stars as Sofia in "Pa'lante" (Onward), a sort of Venezuelan answer to "Waiting for Godot" where the interminable wait is for groceries and toiletries.
The play is part of a "micro-theater" program in a small performance space at a Caracas shopping mall that features some 20 plays of 15 minutes each.
"Pa'lante" takes its name from a typically Venezuelan expression uttered in the face of adversity.
It brings together Sofia, with her chic scarves and leisure-class airs, with Josefina, a street-smart operator with tight clothes and nappy hair.
The women come from different worlds, but are both condemned to spend hours waiting in the lines that form every day in front of the nation's supermarkets.
Sofia buys products for her family or to barter with her friends. Josefina is shopping to sell whatever she can at a mark-up on the street.
Their anecdotes draw peals of laughter from the audience, who know their ordeal all too well.
"Going to the supermarket has become a trauma. It marks our lives. Offices grind to a halt because the receptionist went to buy some sugar that arrived. It's so depressing, anguishing and absurd that it has an intrinsic humor," said Urdaneta.
- Violence, exile -
In the play, Sofia and Josefina are constantly worried about their children, fearing they will fall victim to the violence that has given Venezuela the world's second-highest homicide rate.
Crime and recession have sent many young professionals into self-imposed exile, another recurring theme onstage.
In "On Line," four young Venezuelans, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, share their lives over the Internet.
A boyfriend eats breakfast in Madrid in front of his computer, the screen divided between his girlfriend and his brother back in Venezuela -- the former about to go to bed, the latter flirting online with a young Venezuelan woman who is also living in Spain.
"This is a reflection of what families are going through because of the exodus. We all have a family member, a best friend overseas, and now our traditions and get-togethers have migrated online," said Jorge Roig Graterol, one of the actors in the play.
Several full-length plays explore similar themes: "Tequila or Rum," about a Venezuelan couple torn between staying in Mexico or returning home; "Desperate Venezuelans," which premiers soon and also deals with exile; and "Jasmines in Lidice" (a Caracas neighborhood), about women who have lost loved ones to violent crime.
Increasingly, Venezuela's theater community is "seeking to touch the audience, rattle their conscience, make them think," theater critic Juan Antonio Gonzalez told AFP.
Karin Valecillos, the author of "Jasmines in Lidice" and "On Line," said she does not seek to be political in her work, but rather explore issues "in the most human, deep and genuine way possible."
"In the case of 'Jasmines,' perhaps it's about seeing how despite the painful, powerful loss of a child, these mothers go on living. It's a great example of how a wounded country can heal. Theater is not to tell you what to think, it's to ask you the questions," she said.