In Intar’s revival of Maxwell Anderson’s little-remembered 1932 drama, “Night Over Taos,” director Estelle Parsons creates a mise en scene almost entirely out of bodies. Using a cast of 24, she paints a constantly shifting picture of the passion and betrayal that rock a small outpost of Mexican rebels, trying in 1847 to stop the U.S. from taking over their town. A leader mounts a table, his followers swarm at his feet, and we know the resistance has energy. A group of women wail, ringing the lowest platform of the ziggurat-style set, and we know the Americans will win. Because they are so well composed, these images strike like a hammer.
There are moments, particularly in the first act, when the rest of this saga matches the force of its imagery.
As it begins its sprawling story, based on historical events in what would become New Mexico, Anderson’s script swiftly defines the loyalties of Taos’ remaining citizens, who regroup after losing a battle with the Americans. Key exposition — wealthy landowner and freedom fighter Pablo Montoya (Jack Landron) may be dead, and his eldest son, Federico (Bryant Mason), will cede half his father’s estate in order to make peace — arrives wrapped in action. Everything moves with breathless, exciting speed.
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Anderson also adds a romantic subplot that complicates Taos’ role as a heroic underdog. It’s hard to fully sympathize with a culture that lets Pablo (who isn’t really dead) force servant girl Diana (Cheryl Lynn Bowers) to marry him, even though he’s decades older and already has a wife. As his younger son, Felipe (Mickey Solis), struggles with his passion for the girl and his respect for his father’s power, tragedy seems as likely for the lovers as it does for the rebels. The extra layer makes the production feel epic.
Most of the lead actors have grandeur to suit the play’s scope. Mason stomps around with total authority, always in control as he barks speeches on why Taos should surrender. Mercedes Herrero has obvious fun as Dona Josefa, Pablo’s current wife, hissing her contempt for the new young thing who will take her place.
Yet even though Parsons maintains a quick pace, the show eventually slackens. For one thing, Anderson overwrites the second and third acts, stopping the action so characters can explain the same point in multiple ways. The hallowed Group Theater may have given this play its premiere, but it still could use some editing.
And Parsons never coaxes convincing perfs from her ensemble of supporting thesps. Though their bodies are expertly arranged, they’re usually stilted, which dampens the frequent choral scenes.
Among the cast, however, Landron sticks out as the sorest thumb. He lacks the bearing to turn Pablo into the charismatic, power-hungry zealot he needs to be. Instead, he’s sly and duplicitous, playing even his boldest confrontations with a rascal’s simpering smile. This undercuts the show’s final movement, in which Pablo falls from arrogant power to suicidal shame. If the man doesn’t seem grand to begin with, it’s hard to be moved when he loses everything. This anemic climax almost negates the production’s initial vigor.