Sometimes all it takes is devastating footage of an innocent young child being gunned down in the middle of a filthy, war-torn street to make apathetic Americans feel pain again. The fact that El Salvador, Rafael Lima’s quick-talking commentary on media, revolutions, and foreign perspective takes place over twenty years ago is all it takes at the ArcLight Theatre to sadly remind us what we should have learned already.
The premise: a group of beer-chugging newsmen camp out in El Salvador’s cheapest hotel, anesthetizing themselves with alcohol, drugs, and self-denial while civil upheaval drains blood in the streets outside their balcony. The catalyst: mounting discussion of the emptiness of their lives compounded with the aforementioned video of one native boy’s shooting during the capture of a tiny village called El Paraiso. The questions: who was this boy? Who shot him? What makes him death matter when so many others perish in anonymity? Was videotaping his death amoral and heartless or just good reporting?
For the six men bound to El Salvador — either by choice or by force — the realization that their personal lives amount to little more than those of the victims being filmed for the five o’clock news is both wretched and frightening, but their involvement — either direct or by accident — is what pushes this play along at unnerving velocity.
It’s reassuring that director Michael Kimmel ensures this message isn’t driven to the point of preachiness, but its fairly consistent disappearances in favor of snort-inducing sexual jokes or assaults on each other’s manhood does cause you to wonder from time to time: hey, isn’t there a war going on out there? As much fun as it is to watch these men trade jabs (and believe me, the amount of character these actors bring to the stage is joyous), sometimes the atmosphere teeters in the direction of a fraternity house. To his credit, Kimmel does tone down the adolescent tendencies when grave seriousness is required, and overall grants his cast permission to explore the less attractive penchants of these men at their rawest moments.
A truly fine example of ensemble acting is on display here in El Salvador. For the six men assembled onstage, each bring a staggering amount of naturalism and believability to his character. Jim Brigman (Skee) and Alan Jestice (Larry) ground the group by acting as the observers, each vaguely removed from the direct action but still emotionally invested enough to remain interesting. Phil Horton serves as the closest thing to comic relief as war correspondent McCutcheon, who ironically enough is afraid of blood. Through Horton’s neurotic performance, the audience is allowed to connect with the fear and panic intrinsic to the situation.
As Fletcher, John Paul Skocik’s strongest moments come at the top of the show when he is encouraged to capitalize on all the unappealing habits Fletcher possesses, but as more characters are introduced, his intensity dwindles. Cory Walter is presented with the greatest opportunity to develop an arc. He is the cameraman responsible for filming the young boy’s execution and most eager to forsake his soul-robbing career, but somehow his Fuller maintains the same steady, loud abrasiveness throughout. It is Shane Covey, however, who delivers the evening’s most tempting performance. His Pinder is both enticing and repulsive, a smart-aleck whose smirk has more pain behind it than he would ever let on. Covey’s dedication to Pinder’s explosive and self-protective nature is captivating to watch, a guaranteed hook for the audience.
The set, courtesy of Kerry Chipman, is appropriately grubby and furthers the frat house allusion. Andrew Hill’s lighting design is on the whole unobtrusive until the script calls for a power outage; he demonstrates later in the early morning scene that low lighting can easily be accomplished, so why merely flash the lights but then leave them at full power even when the characters continually refer to the lack of energy? Puzzling, but thankfully the only technical glitch in this production.
While El Salvador is prone to fits of meandering, its finale delivers the satisfaction of a double-twist ending with enough staying power to make applauding feel inappropriate. If only this level of dominance could be maintained throughout the entire production, perhaps this time the message would stick and we wouldn’t find ourselves in an identical war-media struggle twenty years from now.
Gamblers Productions and The Grift, Inc.