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A Death in Colombia

Play wraps a cross-section of U.S. values around a crackerjack cat-and-mouse thriller laced with the paranoid dread of the German hit "The Lives of Others" and, going back to 1974, "The Parallax View."

Lisa - Roxanne Hart
Roger - Joe Regalbuto
Natalie - Sarah Foret

What happens when America strides into the Third World – whether insisting on domination or agitating for reform – is a topic of continual interest everywhere, though only rarely on our stages. So Shem Bitterman is owed thanks for “A Death in Colombia,” which wraps a cross-section of U.S. values around a crackerjack cat-and-mouse thriller laced with the paranoid dread of the German hit “The Lives of Others” and, going back to 1974, “The Parallax View.” The Katselas Theater Company does it to a turn with fine acting under Steven Zuckerman’s helm.

A Yank has gone missing in the rain forest, no random tourist but a one-time campus radical turned human rights attorney. This time “John” is crusading for the rights of indigenous peoples at the mercy of rapacious multinationals, any one of whom would be happy to see an outside rabble-rouser become one of “the disappeared.”

But the threats don’t end with Big Oil. John’s wife, Lisa (Roxanne Hart), fists and emotions clenched in their Bogota apartment, knows what a tempting pawn he would be to the various political factions jockeying for control of Colombia’s government and drug trade. (The script’s chaotic national politics circa 2002 are fact-based.) And who knows? Maybe the Uwa tribe itself decided it didn’t appreciate the white man’s so-called help.

As a fraught night stretches into tense morning, Lisa’s equanimity will be tested by an old college chum (Joe Regalbuto) and an idealistic sweet young thing (Sarah Foret), each of whom has different reasons for inquiring into John’s whereabouts.

Each, too, has secrets, doled out confidently by Bitterman even when they seem far-fetched or downright preposterous – though very little qualifies as preposterous in this urban battleground setting, where an appreciation for ancient artifacts sits cheek by jowl with the cheapness of human life.

Hart and Regalbuto deftly trim their emotional sails to each new twist, and Zuckerman slowly turns the screws while tossing in an occasional hit of flash violence when you least expect it.

But even more remarkable is how post 9/11 geopolitics is made immediate and personal. Bitterman’s people encapsulate every motivation – noble and base – behind America’s overseas adventures, and each is given even-handed opportunity to articulate his or her point of view.

In the end, these folks are all just trying to make their way in the world, one way or another. Both their moral dilemmas and their tragedies prove to be ours as a people, lending this play its singular gravity.

Jeff McLaughlin’s set and lighting design are also singular, simultaneously establishing the warmth of a South American expatriate haven and undercutting it with omnipresent jungle shadows.

A Death in Colombia

Skylight Theater, Los Angeles; 99 seats; $30 top

Production: A Katselas Theater Company presentation of a play in one act by Shem Bitterman. Directed by Steve Zuckerman.

Creative: Sets and lighting, Jeff McLaughlin; composer, Roger Bellon; sound, Christopher Moscatiello; fight director, Steve Rankin; production stage manager, Christopher Hoffman. Opened June 18, 2011. Reviewed June 24. Runs through July 31. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast: Lisa - Roxanne Hart
Roger - Joe Regalbuto
Natalie - Sarah Foret

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