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To Culebra

Ferdinand

Ferdinand

De Lesseps… William Dennis Hunt

Charles … Todd Nielsen

Agnes … Francesca Casale

The Prosecutor … Jonathan Palmer

The Advocate … Nick DeGruccio

Jules Isadore Dingler … Tim O’Hare

Lt. Lucien Napolian

Bonaparte Wyse … Tom Shea

Baron Jacques

De Reinach … Robert Munns

General Istvan Turr … Albert Lord

Louise … Melissa Hanson

Phillippe

Bunau-Varilla… Chris Van Vleet

Jonathan Bolt’s chronicle of the failed 19th century French effort to build the Panama Canal cries out for the sweep and grandeur of the wide screen. Confined to the stage, the characters of “To Culebra” passionately describe the history unfolding before them but never engage in it. The playwright might have compensated by delving more deeply into the relationships of this colorful ensemble of dreamers and scoundrels but again comes up short, despite the admirable efforts of a first-rate ensemble.

Bolt does create a larger-than-life figure in the builder of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand De Lesseps, played to the boisterous hilt by William Dennis Hunt. In 1876, seven years after the completion of Suez, the aging but still forceful Lesseps leads an unlikely alliance of dedicated engineers and unscrupulous profiteers in an effort to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama that would unite the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

By 1888, the project, rife with labor problems, disease and corruption, is abandoned. The play attempts to re-create this epic by way of flashbacks at the Court of Appeal in Paris, where, in 1893, De Lesseps and his son Charles (Todd Nielsen) are being tried for fraud in the venture.

Despite the imaginative staging of director Michael David Wadler, this device proves more tedious than enlightening as a succession of characters are examined by the Prosecutor (Jonathan Palmer) or the Advocate (Nick DeGruccio).

The actors’ portrayals rise above the material, especially Nielsen as the dutiful son, Charles, as he exudes the quiet torment of this brilliant administrator who is constantly ignored or overshadowed by his father.

Other standouts include Robert Munns’ Baron Jacques De Reinach, who manages to carry off embezzlement with a world-weary but elegant air; Tim O’Hare, as the tragically fatigued and broken engineer, Dingler; andChris Van Vleet’s boyishly enthusiastic assistant, Phillippe Bunau-Varilla. The production designs are excellent: The innovative scenic and lighting designs of Hap Lawrence and Jamie McAllister, respectively, set off the various environments while creating a true feel for the period.

Ted C. Giammona’s costumes are understated but correct and sound designer John R. Fisher makes wonderful use of the music of Verdi to create an atmosphere of heroism and despair.

To Culebra

(Colony Studio Theatre, L.A.; 99 seats; $ 20 top)

Production: Studio Theatre Playhouse presents a Colony production of a play in two acts by Jonathan Bolt, directed by Michael David Wadler. Producer, Barbara Beckley.

Creative: Scenic design, Hap Lawrence; lighting design, Jamie McAllister; costume design, Ted C. Giammona; properties, Julio Martinez; drop artist, Kenton D. Jones. Opened Feb. 12, reviewed March 5, runs through April 3.

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