A play about a young man so depressed that he wants to kill himself may not sound like an appropriate match for our national state of mind. But the journey Antonio Vega and Ana Graham invite us to take in Django in Pain is a beautifully rendered one. Filmed by Graham mid-pandemic on a cellphone, it features handmade puppets, with props and scenery fashioned from found objects. And just like in the parable made famous by The West Wing, Vega has been down there and he knows the way out. The 2016 election kicked him in the soul and the earthquake in Mexico the following year affected him more than he could comprehend. But the time he found himself in COVID lockdown, he could hardly function. An invitation to be part of a creative project — the one that resulted in this innovative work — is what motivated him to push away the mental cobwebs and seek help.
Performed on a clear desk by Vega and two visible puppeteers, the piece follows Django on a series of adventures. His suicide attempt is interrupted by an overexcited dog with whom he slowly forms a bond. The playwright often interacts with his inventions, his inner monologue taking the form of an astute vulture. While the story has gloomy themes, there are also absurdist images such as Django eating breakfast with a noose still secured around his neck. These farcical elements prevent Django’s anguish from becoming excruciating for the audience while still honoring the character’s feelings.
Vega’s dialogue isn’t distinctive nor is it a particularly important element for success. The visuals are what is essential to the narrative and they are inventive and impactful. Many types of puppets are employed including Indonesian style shadow puppets and traditional stringed puppets. The shadows are often as prominent as the characters and set pieces, well-representing the dark and lighter moods battling for attention. As Django’s outlook brightens, so too does the palette employed. Music with a Spanish flavor written by Cristóbal MarYán heightens the mood. Headphones may improve your streaming experience.
Django in Pain serves as an important reminder of the powers of connection and accountability. Whatever our circumstances, there is always an opportunity to develop our own story. Originally commissioned by PlayCo, the production is streaming from 59e59.org as part of their Plays in Place series. Runtime is 56 minutes including Vega’s introduction: essential for comprehending the ending of the play. Narration is available in both English and Spanish. $15 tickets are available at https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/django-in-pain-streaming/ and can be used on demand through October 19. Due to the intensity of the content, there is a viewer advisory.