Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Lee Blessing's Enticing Whores
is as Provocative as its Title

Also see Bob's review of Polk County

Lea Eckert and Jonathan Cantor
Lee Blessing's Whores is an exceptionally provocative and promising new play. It is unusually theatrical and ribald for a play which engages the mind with strong political and social commentary.

Whores was originally produced in a two act version at a regional theatre in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The New Jersey Repertory Theatre production is the premiere of the revised one act version. It is still a work in progress. However, it is already a superior work that can be highly recommended.

In 1980 in El Salvador, four American women, three Maryknoll nuns and a lay missionary worker were abducted, brutally raped and shot dead by soldiers of El Salvador's National Guard. It seems certain that these women were targeted for death because it was believed that they were aiding Communist insurgents. A cover-up ensued, but months later, bowing to pressure from the United States government and with the use of evidence developed by the F.B.I., five soldiers were convicted of the crime and sentenced to thirty years imprisonment.

Evidence developed over the years, led to a U.N. Truth Commission report that concluded that the Minister of Defense General Jose Guillermo Garcia and National Guard Commander Colonel Eugenio Vide Casanova participated in the cover-up. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that Casanova, who would be promoted to General and Defense Minister, had actually ordered the abductions and murders. The 12-year insurgency which resulted in at least 75,000 El Salvadoran deaths came to an end with a peace agreement in 1992.

By 1989, General Casanova had quietly left El Salvador and settled down in a posh Miami suburb, the beneficiary of permanent residency status (his wife and children had preceded him). However, the families of the slain American women, employing Federal statutes, brought a civil action against Casanova and General Garcia, who had also settled comfortably in the Miami area. The families charged these men with responsibility for the wrongful deaths of the four women.

It is at this point that the long one act Whores begins. The entire play takes place in the mind of Casanova surrogate General Raoul de Raoul. We are in Raoul's Miami suburban home during the period of his civil trial. Raoul is having fevered dreams and fantasies. These dreams and fantasies are filled with self justification, a cold eyed view of American foreign policy, sexual panic and obsession, and fear for his future. Four actresses interact with Raoul in his fevered brain. They instantly morph from one role to another with the roles often overlapping. They mostly play images of the four raped and murdered women, and prostitutes and porno actresses. Among them, they also play Raol's wife and children, lawyers, television executives, themselves and others.

Whether or not one agrees with his political, religious and social positions, Lee Blessing makes a very strong case for his views. Blessing is unflinching in his hatred of what he sees as an immoral America whose foreign policy is to support, train and arm vicious dictators who slaughter and terrorize their own people. Raoul speaks directly to us, his American audience:

... You don't prejudge me. How can you? We're on the same side. World democracy is a team effort, right? And you own the team. We don't complain. On the contrary, we spend our lives reading the fine print of your foreign policy. We read between the lines, too. "Lift up the world's poor" you say. But we know you're not serious. There are far too many of them. "Manage the poor". That's what you mean. "Keep them from rising up, from moving around-from moving to Florida". And we do. We keep them poor, we keep them ignorant, we keep them off your back. And what thanks do we get? You pretend we're not even doing this for you. And if anything goes wrong, then it's our fault. We're bad leaders, we're repressive, we don't value human life. And when we're through, and we've dedicated our lives to managing the unmanageable, so you don't have to soil your hands, do you let us retire in peace, under the Florida sun? Do you even once say, "Thank you. General de Raoul, we couldn't have done it without you"? No. You set your courts on us, as though we were common criminals. We should have known. You sent us rifles and nuns. You are the least consistent people on the face of the earth.

The amoral, murderous Raoul is rendered as sadly ordinary as many an immigrant parent when one of his spoiled suburban American children tells him and Mrs. de Raoul:

No, you listen to me! You and Dad just don't get it, do you? You're immigrants. Your whole job was to get us to America, and into good schools and good careers and then die. You did it all just fine, except the dying part. You completely screwed up the dying part!

As impressed as I am with this play, I must note that it is most explicit in its language as well as its depiction of sexuality. It is also critical of theology. Your reaction to Josette's response to Raoul's asking her why she calls him "Daddy" should give you a good indication as to whether or not Whores is for you:

I was a Catholic nun! Every man is Daddy for me! For Christ's sake, think about it. What's the Holy Trinity all about? I married my Daddy! A nun is the ultimate passive entity. I am what I submit to. Daddy, I submit to you, to the glory that is salvation and to the evil that takes my life-...

Jonathan Cantor does terrific work as Raoul. Despite his evil acts and sexual perversity (or is it because of them?), he emerges as a very understandable and convincing everyman. While much credit must go to Lee Blessing and director John Pietrowski for this, it is Cantor who must deliver the goods and he does.

The women do solid work in very difficult roles requiring split second transitions in style, character and accent. The strongest performance may be that of Corinne Edgerly (Carmencita) who has the more mature roles, including Mrs. de Raoul. However, Lea Eckert (Miou-Miou), Carol Todd (Josette), and Lilly Mercer (Angelique) are exemplary.

Director John Pietrowski has a play of true value here. Although the work of author and director still needs some fine tuning, Pietrowski has done an excellent job, solidly putting across the complex, exceedingly difficult to stage Whores.

It is not immediately or consistently clear whether all of the action is within the mind of Raoul. Pre-curtain, the audience was informed that the play in its entirety is a dream of Raoul. On balance, this is useful. However, as there are several between scene pauses in the early going, the play at first lacks the flow of a dream. As Whores progresses, the dreams became far more continuous, and the conceit works better. For me, the play plays best with Raoul in conscious control of his fantasy life. Also, as the trial progresses in a linear fashion, I think that Whores works best as a series of fantasies.

There is no nudity, although the script would seem to require it. I have been told that it is Blessing's preference. In any event, the seemingly semi-nude actress in the opening scene should not turn toward us as it seems odd after the initial illusion is established. I would also suggest that the porno film scene late in the play be moved to the end in order to bring Raoul's fantasies full circle. As it now stands, it misleadingly sends out a signal that the play is ending.

I cannot help but observe that Whores would be a terrific vehicle for Al Pacino.

Whores continues performances through November 14 at the New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, N.J. 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online

Whores by Lee Blessing; directed by John Pietrowski

Miou-Miou..........LEA ECKERT
Josette..........CAROL TODD
Angelique..........LILY MERCER
Carmencita..........CORINNE EDGERLY
Raoul..........JONATHAN CANTOR

Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

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