By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
A lack of ideas is certainly not a problem with the Dreamers Theatre production of The Just Assassins, a new adaptation by Manuel Martinez and Yolandi Hughes of Albert Camus's play Les Justes. Camus, the noted existential philosopher, has fallen from public notice in the past few decades but his writings remain challenging and relevant, especially in this postmillennium terrorist environment. Camus's experience as a French resistance fighter in the Second World War and his observations of the guerrilla war in Algeria afterward are directly funneled into many of his novels and plays, including this one.
Martinez, the company's executive director, and Hughes, its artistic director, have updated Camus's tale, setting it in 2030 in a country torn by ethnic strife. A civil war has broken out between rival factions, including an Islamic force in the southern part of the country that seeks to secede. When an exiled Catholic king returns to reunite the nation, the separatists plan to assassinate him. A cell of all-female assassins hole up in an apartment waiting for the right moment to kill the king. Ringleader Anna (Evelyn Perez) harangues her subordinates with radical rhetoric, but the chosen bomb thrower Ynez (Deborah L. Sherman) wavers at the last moment and the opportunity passes.
The crisis raises unexpected problems for the group -- when is assassination justified and when is it not? Can the extraneous killing of bystanders be justified? Does the wished-for end always justify the means? These and many more vital issues are argued at length in this drama, which bears a close and intentional resemblance to the current news from the Middle East, as a new trend of female suicide bombers seeks to promote the Palestinian cause. The parallel is close but not very deep. These women are identified with an Islamic cause, and the production design pegs them as Muslims of some kind. But little else in the play references Islam in any meaningful way and the Islamic identification ends up little more than a sensationalist cheap shot.
Hughes directs in a careful, conservative manner, presenting well-balanced stage pictures, and opts for an austere, declamatory performance style that echoes Greek tragedy. She also appears to be playing with mythic symbolism, notably that of the Handless Maiden, an archetype of female disempowerment: She's got all her women acting without hand movements, an echo of the wounds Ynez suffers in the story. But these ideas and images aren't matched with enough theatrical invention that might compensate for the play's lack of suspense or surprise. The result is a thoughtful but airless production that's earnest but not very entertaining.
The performances range widely in effectiveness, from flat caricature to the more nuanced work of Claudia Latorre as novice terrorist Dora and Aubrey Zappolo as another comrade, Veka. Much of the cast settles for playing generalities when extreme specificity is called for. There are some effective moments, however, notably an interesting seduction scene between Ynez and Dora, whose wandering hands offer an intriguing contrast to her high-toned dialogue. Another highlight is a prison scene in which badly injured Ynez encounters another prisoner, Foka, who is not only the custodian but her executioner. Foka, played with gusto by Laverne Lewis, is a Shakespearean character, a wry, lowlife commentator who's a welcome relief to the relentlessly grim situation.
As was the case with the Dreamers' premiere production, Beautiful Dreamer, A Tale of Cassadaga, the company's production quality is very high, from set designer Michael Essad. With its curving arches and earth-colored stonelike surfaces, the setting evokes a timeless, Arab-influenced environment. Ellis Tillman's graceful costuming, with Islamic-style tunics and head scarves in muted gray tones, are very effective. I could have done without Ozzie Quintana's annoying techno music tracks which, when combined with the stylish costuming and the willowy cast, threatened to turn the production into a terrorist fashion show.
These carpings aside, there's a lot to admire in The Just Assassins. It secures the Dreamers Theatre's identity as a creator of well-wrought productions of new works. To this Dreamers makes a statement about courageous programming and adds a bracing, welcome dose of intellectual rigor. Ideas in South Florida! Who wudda thunk it?