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Chicho’s gay-immigrant tale has a lot — almost too much — to offer

Chicho’s gay-immigrant tale has a lot — almost too much — to offer
Entertainment
Augusto Bitter in Chicho, his one-man show about an identity crisis, the Venezuelan crisis and more.  (Dahlia Katz / DAHLIA KATZ)

Written by Augusto Bitter, directed by Claren Grosz. Until March 24 at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson Ave. Pencilkitproductions.com and 416-504-7529.

Two young gay Venezuelan-Canadian men connect on social media and meet at the statue of Simon Bolivar in Trinity-Bellwoods park. They talk for hours about their similar background and experience, sharing “a weighted look that combines deep sadness, recognition, survivor’s guilt, embarrassment, competition, and patriotism, of course.” It all starts to get a bit depressing so they go home together and have hot sex, but then our narrator Chicho has the gut-wrenching realization that his lover is moaning in English. What does it mean to be two nationalities and neither at the same time? Does Chicho know how to be queer in Spanish?

This is one of the many beautifully observed anecdotes in Augusto Bitter’s one-man show now playing in a Pencil Kit Productions/Theatre Passe Muraille presentation in association with Aluna Theatre. Only 24 years old, Bitter is an electrifying talent who has packed more into this 100-minute monologue than its weight can fully bear. On the one hand I wanted to say to him “slow down! You’re doing amazing! There will be more shows!” but on the other, the material is delivered with such energy, skill, and urgency that you don’t want to get in his way.

Part of Bitter’s project is to educate audiences about his ancestral country’s history and the realities of social and economic deprivation for today’s Venezuelans. Bitter’s engineer parents were among the 20,000 workers who lost their jobs in the early 2000s when then-president Hugo Chavez nationalized the oil industry; the family moved to Fort McMurray, and Bitter then to Toronto. Through the autobiographical character of Chicho, Bitter acknowledges his privilege in having gotten out, but he’s also struggling with all kinds of in-betweenness: being gay, of Catholic upbringing, and an immigrant, simultaneously connected to and alienated from his tortured homeland.

That’s already a lot. Then we layer in the remarkable topicality the show has acquired given the current turmoil in Venezuela, which Bitter incorporates into the show: he makes multiple scathing references to the epic blackout adding to the chaos and misery of the ongoing Maduro/Guaido standoff. The timing has a mixed effect: it informs the rage underlying Bitter’s observations of Venezuela and will likely bring in audiences keen to know more about the country. But it also draws focus away from Chicho/Bitter’s personal story and contributes to the production feeling overladen.

That said, there is all kinds of entertainment here: Bitter quick-switching between identities as a confused schoolboy and a sinuous, jacked-up game-show host named ChiChi, who’s quite the striking figure in skin-tight booty shorts and red military beret (and that’s it). A talking avocado teaches Chicho about queerness (“They give the best advice, by far, out of all the confusing vegetable-fruits”). There’s a well-observed story about the extreme measures undertaken by his family’s maid back in Venezuela to buy a single bread roll. Chicho offers scathing commentary on the Venezuelan beauty industry and a riff on the Latin-American obsession with Vicks VapoRub.

There was lots of new information for me in all this, but not for other audience members who laughed at jokes in Spanish and sang along with folk songs and anthems. Bitter’s capacity to create community through audience interaction and the sheer force of his charisma is remarkable.

Claren Grosz’s direction, in tandem with Giuseppe Condello’s lighting and set and Deanna H. Choi’s sound, provides a strong structure for the material. Sharp lighting changes and sound effects signal the move from one anecdote/character to another, and also underscore the impression that Chicho is not entirely in control of this space and his identity. The montage structure has also allowed the material to bulge out in a lot of directions where it could have been more contained.

Part of the proceeds of all ticket sales are going to Venezolanos Por La Vida, which is raising funds to send medical equipment and drugs to Venezuela. If you react as I do, Chicho will have you reaching into your pocket, and already feeling excited about what Bitter will get up to next.
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