After chronicling the pre-political social awakening of the young Che Guevara in his screenplay for “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Jose Rivera returns to the Argentinean Marxist revolutionary, this time at the other end of his life, in “School of the Americas.” Unfolding over the two days Che was held captive in a La Higuera schoolhouse before being executed without trial by the Bolivian army, the play is an awkward mix of political screed, melodrama and intrusive experimental touches. Mark Wing-Davey’s production never fully succeeds in bringing the iconic face on the T-shirt to life as a human being.
A charismatic actor capable of breathing nuance and compassion into even stubbornly remote roles — he rose to the not-inconsiderable challenge of playing Jesus of Nazareth in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” — LAByrinth co-founder and co-artistic director (with Philip Seymour Hoffman) John Ortiz is inhibited here by a drama that carves out a human angle yet remains bogged down in didacticism.
Rivera based the play on the true story of Julia Cortes, a teacher in dirt-poor Bolivia who badgered guards into letting her into her schoolhouse to talk with the wounded Che while the U.S. State Dept. and the Bolivian military dragged their heels debating what to do with the high-profile prisoner.
The dialogue and development of these encounters are imagined, however, charting the gradual meeting on a tender middle-ground between the staunch idealist and atheist being held captive and the religious romantic attempting to bring him comfort.
Designer Andromache Chalfant’s sun-blasted courtyard, with live chickens pecking the ground outside the modest, tin-roofed adobe schoolhouse, suggests a broader-canvas play than this virtual two-hander ultimately becomes. As soon as Julia (Patricia Velasquez) talks her way into the gloomily lit room where Che lies, hands bound, wheezing with asthma and bleeding from bullet wounds, the drama slows to a crawl.
Rivera painstakingly depicts the stirring of deep feeling in lonely, unmarried Julia and the softening of Che’s dismissive attitudes toward her faith and her dogged efforts to bring education to local children, which he sees as futile in a country enslaved by an imperialist capitalist superpower.
But the playwright is unable to expound on Che’s beliefs about a Latin America free from economic inequality, from the debilitating division of national borders and, above all, from colonial bondage to the U.S. without slipping into textbook diatribe. Consequently, the human drama lacks intensity.
“I know you’re passionate about this, Mr. Guevara,” admonishes Julia. “But you really need to learn to talk to people like a person … not like a speech you give at the Kremlin.” While Rivera acknowledges the problem, he takes far too long to overcome it.
One of the more vivid angles is the parallel of the central characters being molded by formidable parental figures — Julia by a father who believed in education for all, Che by a mother who instilled in him a thirst for intellectual argument, a sensitivity toward injustice and an awareness of the power of ideas. Both Che and Julia are vehemently opposed to ignorance, their differences evident in their approach to combating it.
Much as the play is a history piece centering on a specific relationship, it’s also clearly intended to resonate in the current political climate. Echoes of the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, of Guantanamo Bay and the torture of political prisoners ring out loud and clear. However, the connections are too pointedly indicated. “It’s been my experience the more a country invokes the name of God, the more likely they are to torture their own and other people,” says Che. “You can’t be naive about the intentions of your government.”
Arrogant but humbled, his army decimated and all communication cut off, Che’s soulfulness is steadily uncovered by Ortiz as the revolutionary confronts his failings and acknowledges the burden of his mythicized persona. But somehow, he remains a pallid pencil sketch of a figure already ingrained in the consciousness of most of the audience — more earnest than Ernesto.
Despite shouldering the chief emotional duties of the play, Velasquez’s monotone perf fails to invest her character with empathy, while as the lieutenant in charge of the prisoner, a Cuban contemptuous of what Che and Castro did to his homeland, Felix Solis is similarly at a loss to smooth out the transition from bullying brutality to more complex, disillusioned responses.
Even with the occasional interlude of projections on a corrugated iron wall, Wing-Davey’s direction does little to alleviate the static nature of the play’s succession of two-character scenes. The writer has a lot on his mind regarding war and peace, heroism, sacrifice and defeat, but he fails to summon a bold spirit worthy of his subject.