KPBS AIRDATE: May 26, 1993
When theater and politics commingle, the results can be dogmatic … or incendiary. Lucky for us, we are currently being treated to two stellar productions that provide politics without pedantry.
On the somewhat lighter, filmic side, we have “Children of Paradise: Shooting A Dream” at the La Jolla Playhouse. Anyone who’s ever seen the classic 1945 French film “Les Enfants du Paradis/Children of Paradise,” cannot forget the look or the feel or the characters. The Minneapolis-based Théatre de la Jeune Lune couldn’t forget either. The plucky little ensemble developed a marvelous, magical stage version, an onscreen/offscreen movie-within-a-play that recently won the American Theatre Critics New Play Award for 1993. And they’ve brought the entire production here.
The controversial film, directed by Marcel Carné during the Nazi occupation of France, concerns a celebrated 19th century mime, an actor, an aristocrat, a murderer and the beautiful, free-spirited object of their affections.
What was going on behind the scenes was as fascinating as what was committed to celluloid. The actors’ lives eerily paralleled their roles. Repression of art was in the air. The filmmaking was overseen by the Vichy government, two primary collaborators on the film were Jews, working surreptitiously. Two actors had affairs with Germans. The director was blacklisted as a Nazi collaborator. Lives were ruined over this film, but a legend was created, and is boldly perpetuated in this inspired, imaginative piece.
We watch seminal scenes from the movie being shot. We see the film actors transformed into their characters. Offscreen, the actors repeatedly echo lines from the film. We see the set in miniature, in half-size, in full proportion. The company has managed to provide us with stage renditions of close-ups, long-shots, wide angles. If you’ve seen the movie (showing on weekends at the Hillcrest Cinema), you appreciate all the in-jokes all the more. If you haven’t, you’ll still be intrigued.
There are so many layers to this piece, and to the production, that the three-plus hours fairly fly by. Try to see the movie. Don’t miss the play…
And while you’re in a thinking, political mood, hotfoot it down to the San Diego Rep to catch “Death and the Maiden,” a tense, passionate drama written by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, and playing alternately in Spanish and in English.
Fifteen years before the play begins, Paulina was abducted, blindfolded, tortured and raped — to the tune of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet. By a quirk of fate, her husband meets up with a man she’s convinced is the demented, Mengele-like doctor who did the evil deeds.
Could it be this mild-mannered guy who graciously helped her lawyer husband with a flat tire? Or is it just her mind playing tricks on her after years of withdrawal into her anguished, private hell? Does her husband believe her, or his professional peer? Is she as schizoid as the doctor claims? Is her husband committed to the rebuilding of his country, or the enhancement of his own career? Does she want revenge, or justice? What is, as they say over and over in the play, “the real, real truth?”
Paulina gags and ties down the doctor, puts him on trial in her living room and forces her husband to defend him. She is crying out for all oppressed women, for all victims of violence and repression. We want to believe her… but those men seem so rational. The playwright twists our loyalties until our heads are spinning.
Director Douglas Jacobs keeps the tension high and the production taut. Rose Portillo, although she looks much younger than this character should be, is remarkable as Paulina. Her passion flows, her pain is palpable. Her performance is flawless. As Gerardo, Marco Rodriguez is powerful, too, swinging tentatively between devoted husband and self-serving technocrat. Only Walter Krochmal fails to live up to the play’s demands and our expectations. He’s not quite a believable doctor or monster or good old boy. This weakens the tight little triangle, but not enough to soften the edge.
What we have here is theater of the thinking. Two plays to arouse you from winter’s somnambulance. Wake up, and let some provocative theater open your eyes.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.