By Christian Viveros-Faun√©
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
Ernesto "Che" Guevara (19281967) was, in any case, a figure not easy to second-guess. A romantic hero of the Cuban revolution, also rumored to have been an overly excitable thorn in its Castroite side, also rumored to have been wholly disillusioned by Cuba's wedding to Soviet dogmatism to the point of taking on suicidal ultra-revolutionary adventures that stood zero chance of success, also rumored to have been an affectionate husband and loving father who would just as soon have stayed home with his family, also rumored to have been the most dogmatically vindictive and violent Marxist totalitarian of them allChe in retrospect is pretty much who your funding sources would like him to have been. Rivera's drama imagines Che's final conversations, mainly with a young and fairly naive female schoolteacher, in the one-room village schoolhouse where the Bolivian army (actually a band of U.S.-trained mercenaries from all over Latin America, including anti-Castro Cubans) has him imprisoned. As Rivera depicts them, both the wavery-liberal but unenlightened schoolmarm (Patricia Velasquez) and the brutal but soulful lieutenant in charge (Felix Solis) are morally troubled figures like Che himself, the two men starting out with a display of machista absolute assurance and revealing more and more vulnerability while the fluttery but determined teacher gains strength and self-knowledge progressively with each revelation.
There probably was a play to be found in this simple triangular structure, albeit a familiar one. (Despite the lack of any sexual involvement among the trio, it even contains the elements of a standard jealousy trianglewhich Rivera, with his showbiz instinct, doesn't fail to brush in.) Rivera is stuck with the often-rehearsed arguments Che's presence positsthe value of liberation struggles versus their bloody cost, the human improvements brought by consumer capitalism versus its abusive stranglehold on those who produce its goodsexactly as he's stuck with the reality of Che's capture and death. But that we've heard the arguments, and the story, before, doesn't mean we wouldn't be interested in watching how they affect the individuals involved: It's the human individual's experience that makes the economic or ethical argument come alive; it's seeing the individual live out the facts that makes the facts meaningful.
Yet Rivera, a writer who always questions himself on many frontsand presumably abetted here by Wing-Davey, a director as fond of moving scenery and gadgets as he is of attacking a play from multiple angleswon't let himself rest content with the simple three-handed dialogue that's the stuff of his drama. There's an elaborate prelude and postlude involving the schoolteacher's relationship with her sister. There's interruptive business, most of it stock war-movie stuff, with the guards keeping watch over Che. Wing-Davey adds an elaborate set, by Andromache Chalfant, with rooms rolling in and out on the same principle as Mark Wendland's set for Satellites, lately across the hall at the Public Theater (and making the same tiresome rumbling noise as they roll). Chalfant's set does contain one striking visual coup, a trompe l'oeil opening scene that makes you think the evening will be spent in a much more confined space than the production actually uses. But once that's over, it's just more rumbling machinery. Confining the action to one place, to focus on how the people change, would have been more to the point.
Some of the seemingly needless multiplicity of effects comes from an oddity inherent in Rivera's writing. Very much a man of two worlds, he's a writer steeped in Hispanic culture who clearly often thinks in Spanish, which can sometimes give his dialogue a faintly stilted, transliterated sound. At the same time, he's wholly at home in North American culture, so that almost as many passages flow colloquially. This sets up a double struggle for Wing-Davey's Latino cast. With the exception of John Ortiz as Che, who manages to make both the dialectical disquisitions and the repartee sound like parts of a single soul, the actors seem always to be battling to control their speeches, ships tossed this way and that on the unpredictable seas of Rivera's writing. Velasquez, as the schoolteacher, usually has her emotions in the right place, but her inflections less often; Solis, as the less cerebral commandant, has an easier time of it. The final irony, one which probably would not have been lost on Che himself, is that the production's entirely reasonable desire for authenticityto have this deeply Latin American work, dealing specifically with Latin American issues, represented on the English-speaking stage by Latin American actorshas ultimately helped to vitiate its potential effectiveness. But Rivera's play, despite its constant interest, is too deeply divided in its goals to be genuinely effectivea perfect tribute, in that regard, to its perplexing and troubled hero.