Zé Celso, Walmor y Cacilda 64–2014: O ROBOGÓLPE, 2014. Performance views, Teatro Oficina, Săo Paulo. Left: Zé Celso.

SINCE ITS FOUNDING IN 1958, Teatro Oficina has been the touchstone for avant-garde theater in Brazil. Originally conceived and still led by legendary actor-director José Celso Martinez Corręa—aka Zé Celso—Teatro Oficina is housed in downtown Săo Paulo in a heritage-listed building designed by architects Lina Bo Bardi and Edson Elito. Directly engaging the ideology and rhetoric of the military dictatorship during its reign while exemplifying the “anthropophagic” strategies propagated by the Brazilian artistic movement known as Tropicália, the group continues to be one of the stalwart critical voices in Brazil’s cultural production.

The theater’s architecture is striking. One wall is consumed by a monumental window that faces a vast, empty lot—valuable real estate sought after for the kinds of high-rise constructions emblematic of Săo Paulo’s contemporary topography. Audiences are seated on scaffolding on either side of an elongated performance area, a slightly inclined corridor that features a boardwalk and a small stage for live musical accompaniment. The inclusive design—there are minimal architectonic barriers dividing audience and performers—is complemented by a dramaturgical disposition toward participation, with actors often inviting audience members to interact during the play.

Many of the works conceived by Zé Celso in recent years have been dedicated to and inspired by the well-known Brazilian actor Cacilda Becker (1921–1969), who died after a stroke suffered onstage performing in a production of Waiting for Godot. Since Zé Celso’s Cacilda! (1998), there has been the Brazylian Wandering Star – Cacilda!! (2009), Cacilda!!! Glory in the TBC and 68 Here Now!!! (2013), and Cacilda!!!! The Film & Theatre Factory Film (2013). After all this, Cacilda!!!!! is scheduled to open in July of 2014.

Walmor y Cacilda 64–2014: O ROBOGÓLPE, Zé Celso’s current play, opened on April 25th, the fortieth anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution. It follows in the tradition of the prior “Cacilda” works, with the eponymous “Walmor” referring to Cacilda’s last husband, Walmor Chagas, who died last year of a suspected suicide. Walmor y Cacilda… is layered with references to the era of the military dictatorship and the history of theater, with analogies created to events in our recent past. As we close in on the World Cup (here simply called Copa) and the upcoming elections, Brazil has seen numerous protests against government spending on sports events, while essential public health services have been neglected. As a symbol of repression, the state recently presented the new armor for military police, a full-body costume redolent of Robocop, to be used in the so-called “safety procedures” of the soccer tournament.

“The Military police dressed as ROBOCOP!!” writes Zé Celso on his blog. “The Power of the State intending to ban the use of masks in demonstrations, while presenting the ROBOCOPA to us, unmasked, unarmed? Is it a declaration of war?”

And his ensemble, Uzyna Uzona, appeals: “How do we, bodies subjected to life and history, live as free beings, how do we deal with this strange entity of people that resemble tanks in a science fiction war?”

Such is the point of departure for Walmor y Cacilda 64–2014. On entering the theater, we’re greeted by a sacral chorus and the smell of incense. On the upper level of the scaffolding sits former Brazilian president Getulio Vargas (played by Marcelo Drummond), wearing a red gown as he reads his suicide letter from 1954. “I leave life,” he concludes, “to enter history.” A chorus calling for a counterrevolution by the armed forces follows his disappearance. What arrives instead is the Robocop costume, accompanied by a soundtrack evocative of a bombastic Hollywood movie. The Robocop is met with endorsement by a slimy figure representing the CIA’s involvement with the 1964 military coup, carrying a bag of US dollars; from the opposite end, a group of nuns enters holding rosaries—they personify the Marcha da Família com Deus pela Liberdade, a group that demonstrated, together with landowners and the Săo Paulo bourgeoisie, against left-wing reforms planned by the pre-coup government (1961–1964) of Joăo Goulart.

The actors who have amassed on stage remove the red elements of their costumes to expose the blue, green, and yellow of the Brazilian flag. Under the new circumstances of the military government, conditions for free artistic expression are tightened. In a meeting with an official from the DOPS (Department for Political and Social Order, 1924–1983), Cacilda and actress Maria Della Costa seduce their interrogators and liberate Cacilda’s sister Cleyde. In the same go they achieve the opening of all closed-down theaters. As the play reaches its denouement, Zé Celso is brought onto the stage in a wheelchair, carrying a red carnation (in homage to the Portuguese revolution from 1974); he stands and begins a poetic rant on politics, cultural funding, real-estate speculation, and the Copa. Robocop uniforms are buried in the boardwalk and the audience, together with the actors, finish with a song of protest: “Robogolpe, Robocopa,” we go, as we leave the theater.

Tobi Maier is a writer and curator based in Săo Paulo.

Walmor y Cacilda 64–2014 runs through Sunday, June 29, 2014 at Teatro Oficina in Săo Paulo.