There's a reason Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 1970s Argentinean revolutionary biomusical was called Evita and not Che!: The one who inspires, be it love, hatred, or indifference, is usually more noteworthy than those inspired by her. While Che Guevara features prominently in the musical as an interested inheritor of Eva Peron's violent legacy, how could there be any question that the power-hungry, power-wielding woman must be the focus of either our pity or our scorn, but also always our attention?
The dramatic answer is that action is always more captivating than inaction, and what Marxist-guerilla Guevara had not yet done - worked to seize power in Cuba and attempted to foment revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia, where he would die in 1967 - would make a less viable subject than a woman who slept her way from poverty to prominence, and upended the Argentinean social structure once she arrived. Judging from Josť Rivera's ponderously ineffective Guevara bioplay, School of the Americas, which The Public Theater and LAByrinth Theater Company are presenting at The Public's LuEsther Hall, that remains the case.
The play, which centers on the last days of Guevara's life, romanticizes its central subject less than Rivera's 2004 film, The Motorcycle Diaries. Adapted from Guevara's own writings, it presented the young, still-impressionable Guevara as a sex symbol and humanitarian whose feelings about life and politics were fashioned during a cross-continental bike trip through South America.
But the Oscar-nominated screenplay did what School of the Americas does not: Make the man a more active participant in creating his future. By the time we meet Guevara (John Ortiz), starving and delusional while imprisoned in a ramshackle La Higuera school only days before his summary execution, there's nothing left for him to say or do but pass on the wisdom so that his dream of a world thriving under Communism - not languishing under the iron fist of the United States - may at last be realized.
His only goal is to win over Julia Cortes (Patricia Velasquez), the obligatorily reluctant and determined schoolteacher who built the school with her father to give poor children a better, freer life. She believes in Guevara much the way she believes in his captor, Lieutenant Felix Ramos (Felix Solis), a Cuban national in America's employ, and prays that for both men, her trust will not have been misplaced.
History, which tells us that Guevara met his end soon after, kills most every chance for surprise here long before the first scene, crammed with expository whining between Julia and her common-sense sister Lucilla (Karina Arroyave), arrives to finish the job. So the only way for a play like this to feel like more than a pro-Communism tract is for a series of juicy confrontations between Guevara and Julia that will render the never-ending argument about the superior political philosophy in fresh theatrical terms.
What we get instead is endless speechifying, platitudinous arguments, and semi-tangential digressions that are the stuff of nonfiction novels or uninventive TV series, not live theatre. (For example, arguing about the details of verb conjugation is not a riveting stage activity.) We need something to convince us of the tangible concerns of these people, something to amplify Guevara's need to be heard and the strait-laced Julia's need for expression that can conceivably bring them both together.
But nothing in the writing or the performances humanizes these people to a sufficient degree. Ortiz, speaking in a constricted monotone and fleshing out Guevara with little else, and Velasquez, with oppressively tentative delivery that tries to substitute vocal uncertainty for character development, make these people dusty symbols and not flesh-and-blood freedom fighters.
Only Solis exudes even a trace of humanity as the alternately aggressive and acquiescent lord over Guevara's new manor. While Felix traces a predictable arc, from a soldier who's "just following orders" to a man who (naturally) comes to question those orders, Solis nonetheless finds a textured balance of yes, no, and maybe that should be visible from everyone, especially the two central figures who share scenes packed with an hour or more of particularly turgid dialogue.
They get little help from director Mark Wing-Davey, who's paced the show like a two-hour history lecture, or lighting designer David Weiner, who never met a low setting on a dimmer switch he didn't like. Even Andromache Chalfant's extravagantly rundown set, depicting an astonishing number of interiors and exteriors with gritty clarity, dwarfs the central concerns one suspects Rivera would prefer remain at the forefront.
That's probably just as well, as the passionate pro-Communism arguments Guevara makes in "educating" Julia might not be easy for everyone to swallow, and Rivera and Wing-Davey's treatment of them as political faits accomplis don't make them go down any easier. Guevara's death, like his life, could make for compelling theatre, but it would need the breadth and the depth that only true dramatic musicality can provide. School of the Americas doesn't need songs like Evita's, but it still ought to sing.
School of the Americas