Politics and Pretensions

The singer who holds the vibrato on a note a bit too long. The dancer who takes three extra leaps. The piano player who tinkles around on one end of the keyboard until you're anxious for him to move on. All represent examples of the show business phenomenon commonly called "too good no good." Directors and producers for decades have chastised such actions with the shouted warning, "KISS!": Keep It Simple Stupid.

It is the combination of great talent and tasteful restraint which comprises genius, the careful blend of the subtle with the sensational. What takes performers and actors years of crafting to achieve is not the burst of charisma, but the slight pulling back on the reins, the calculated modulation of an effect. If you study the work of top-notch performers such as Gene Hackman or Sir Laurence Olivier, you will see, to your amazement, that they do much less than you thought. Their anger is not a roar but a cold declaration, their joy not a yelp but a quiet smile.

If there is one culprit to blame in the almost-correct production of Ariel Dorfman's controversial play Death and the Maiden by the Florida Shakespeare Festival, it's simply the direction. Admittedly, guest artist Juan Cejas, the gifted chief and founder of the ACME Acting Company, has brought an ambitious vision to the Shakespeare Festival, reborn with new management after a year of post-Andrew devastation caused by the shattering of its venue (the Minorca Playhouse). His interpretation of this work as one of great import causes the too-good-no-good problem to surface almost everywhere, and in the process even highlights weaknesses in Dorfman's play.

Despite the voluminous honors since its 1991 opening, which include the Tony and London's Olivier Award, the play has serious problems. It unfolds through overly long exposition during the first few scenes, lacks sustained dramatic tension, and tends in general to philosophize and sermonize rather than demonstrate. In other words, the characters talk a great deal about what happened to them and how they feel about it rather than showing us through their actions alone. Mind you, none of these flaws were as painfully obvious in the two previous showings of this piece I attended; Cejas brings all the warts into the light by giving us more than ample drag time to recognize them.

Dorfman, an exile for some time from his native Chile, sets this tale in a generic dictatorship, where for seventeen years the citizens have barely survived the oppression, brutality, and atrocities of totalitarianism. When the play opens, the dictators have just been overthrown and everyone hopes for a new age of liberty. Chief among the architects of the dawning democracy is Gerardo Escobar, a passive but idealistic attorney, recently named to a commission that seeks to expose the crimes and causes of the vile regime A but is tenuous about punishing its deposed leaders for fear of embodying a vengeful "eye for an eye" image. Escobar has also been married for fifteen years to Paulina Salas, a victim of the dictators, who suffered brutal electrical torture and rape during a groundless, lengthy period of imprisonment and interrogation. Haunted by fear, pain, and anger, Paulina loves Gerardo dearly, but not half as much as she hates the men who brutalized her.

Into their lives comes Dr. Roberto Miranda, who helps Escobar when the lawyer's car gets a flat tire. Paulina is convinced from the moment Miranda enters the couple's home that he is not an innocent citizen but the infamous "Doctor" who orchestrated her torture while playing a recording of Franz Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet in the background. Her proof? She recognizes his voice and the smell of his skin. It's enough for her to draw a gun on both men, to tie up Miranda, and to threaten everyone with death until she extracts the necessary written confession from Miranda. It's certainly not enough for Gerardo, who loves his wife too much to turn her into the police, though he suspects she has gone mad. It is horrifying to Miranda, who constantly pleads his innocence.

Dorfman's script, which never provides a definite answer as to the doctor's guilt, raises a host of questions, from the nature of justice to the standing of women in a male-dominated society. Most of all, Dorfman wonders how the brutal and brutalized can ever survive together in the same country, no matter what is done to try and heal old wounds.

This is not a light Neil Simon comedy. But it isn't the Bible either, as Cejas seems to believe it is. Consequently the long one-act play turns into an almost never-ending night, and two of the cast members suffer noticeably from the added length and artistic pretensions. Rose McVeigh, the new artistic director of the Florida Shakespeare Festival, is without a doubt a talented actress; at moments during her portrayal of Paulina, she shines with a powerful naturalism. But the direction forces her to remain wedded to stage left for a disquieting period of time, and then when she does interact with other characters, she overplays, overenunciates, and overfeels everything. The skill McVeigh brings to less intense scenes reveals an acute and experienced acting instinct; hence it becomes clear that the director made her do just a bit more than was necessary.

A similar problem bedevils the usually superb John Felix in the very difficult role of Miranda. In certain instances, you just cherish his silent frustration, his oily charm, his upper-class outrage, but then he suddenly pushes all these natural affectations up a notch and "acts." Alas, the connection to reality and the impact is gone. Only Michael Gioia as Escobar triumphs despite everything. His portrayal runs from fast and frantic to weak and burdened without ever shedding the natural rhythm of fine theater. It is for the greatness of Dorfman's script in its active moments and for Gioia's performance that I recommend this production.

The shadowy blue set by H. Paul Mazer and exceptional lighting by Betsy Cardwell also contribute quality without pretension. In fact, for the most part, the whole presentation appears adequate, especially to those who have not seen the play at its best. But the discerning eye will find what is wrong with this picture: an effort to be great that borders on an annoying hubris.

Of course, it's better to go slightly over the top than way under it. With $105,000 in hurricane relief funds from the Dade County Cultural Affairs Council, new leadership by McVeigh and actress Ellen Beck, a new home at the Carrusel Theater and renewed dedication, the Florida Shakespeare Festival shows every sign of producing some mighty magic in the future. The secret to success lies simply in its ability, in that future, to take a deep breath and calm down.


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