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Like its hero, Che Guevara, José Rivera’s School of the Americas is a mass of contradictions, a play that wants to be several different kinds of play and wants to view Che from a variety of different angles, never arriving at a full sense of its approach or its intent. Appropriately, though perhaps not deservedly, it’s been given a production, by Mark Wing-Davey, that equally seems to aspire toward becoming several different productions: a multimedia sound-and-light spectacle, a panoramic piece of cultural anthropology, a multi-scened psychological realist drama, a minimalist philosophic debate. None of these is exactly an unworthy thing, and the production, like the play, is full of good material and good possibilities that maddeningly never add up. At the climax, a CIA-faked “official” version of Che’s death is announced, over the radio in the heroine’s house, as having happened at a certain time earlier that day. The heroine then asks her sister what time it is and, yes indeed, it’s exactly that time, and we hear a shot offstage, after which the heroine smashes her radio. This bit of Orwellian surrealism, reducing everything that went before to a glib irony, is a perfect instance of the play’s indecisiveness, its constant need to get ahead of itself and stay ahead of us. One can’t help thinking that Rivera would have done better to stay with his characters and let their needs shape the material. There’s nothing more wearisome than an evening of authorial and directorial second-guessing.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928–1967) 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 all—Che 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 triangle—which Rivera, with his showbiz instinct, doesn’t fail to brush in.) Rivera is stuck with the often-rehearsed arguments Che’s presence posits—the value of liberation struggles versus their bloody cost, the human improvements brought by consumer capitalism versus its abusive stranglehold on those who produce its goods—exactly 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 fronts—and presumably abetted here by Wing-Davey, a director as fond of moving scenery and gadgets as he is of attacking a play from multiple angles—won’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 authenticity—to have this deeply Latin American work, dealing specifically with Latin American issues, represented on the English-speaking stage by Latin American actors—has 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 effective—a perfect tribute, in that regard, to its perplexing and troubled hero.