With a double bill of military-related dramas (Macbeth and Mother Courage) for this season's Shakespeare in the Park and a remounting of David Hare's provocative riff on the Iraq war, Stuff Happens, scheduled for Sept. 5, the Public Theater is wearing its apprehensions about war quite visibly on its sleeve. It should come as no surprise, then, that its latest production, School of the Americas, a co-production with the LAByrinth Theater Company, continues to mine wartime subject matter. Here, however, the result is less than charged in a disappointingly dry and gratingly didactic production. A rough account of revolutionary Che Guevera's imprisonment in Bolivia in late 1967, School of the Americas is part fiction, part truth. The truth: Che was visited by an idealistic young schoolteacher days before he was brutally shot to death. The fiction: He began to trust this teacher, Julia Cortes, and shared some of his philosophy with her while imprisoned in her schoolhouse, the Bolivian army's makeshift prison.
José Rivera, who earned a name (and an Academy Award nomination) for himself with his film The Motorcycle Diaries, another Guevera-based project, is keen to develop the relationship between Che and Julia as a sort of passing of the torch, a transference of rhetoric from wizened leader to discontented upstart. Julia's school services only a few children, those excused from work or family duties and briefly spared their parents' skepticism toward education. A single woman living with her sickly sister, Julia is devoted to her work, but she still can't help but wonder: Why educate these impoverished children so they can understand how much they lack?
As Che's communist propaganda ricochets through the small, worn schoolroom, Julia challenges his violent methods and his choice to place his ideals over the needs of his family. Unfortunately, these tightly constructed (and constricted, given the limited space of the schoolroom) debates never build to a very sophisticated or satisfying intensity, and they chug along in bouts of rather flat-footed, overly simplistic dialogue. Rivera gives us a wealth of surface facts and historical information, but one never gets the sense that these conversations have enough fire to ignite an inner revolution in either of these characters.
This overabundance of encyclopedic detail also curtails the specific development of character and motivation. It's never fully clear, for example, why Julia elects to visit Che in the first place—clearly, it's more than a need to nourish him with chicken soup. But a later quasi-romantic subplot is abrupt to the point of being awkward, lacking the proper exposition.
And Che, horribly injured and on the brink of death, seems all too relaxed and almost casual in his posture. It doesn't help that the otherwise mellifluous John Ortiz delivers the dying Che's lines with almost Shakespearean clarity and dexterity, even as he battles with frequent asthmatic wheezing. How he can spin propaganda in a silken voice while intermittently gasping for air is a mystery, as is his failure to include any noticeable accent in his characterization of the Argentinean leader.
Patricia Velasquez, making her American stage debut, gives an enticingly passionate, albeit rather one-note, turn as Julia. The supporting characters have better luck with the writing, and Felix Solis delivers a compelling performance as the conflicted Lieutenant Ramos, while Karina Arroyave makes a striking (yet brief) appearance as Julia's sister Lucila.
Designers Andromache Chalfant (sets), Mimi O'Donnell (costumes), and especially David Weiner (lighting) have created a sumptuous Bolivian landscape, appropriately tarnished yet filled with pockets of splendor. Their attention to detail manages to capture both the prosaic (live chickens roam the set in one scene) and the holy (an altogether spellbinding final image, illuminated by candles). Sound designer Robert Kaplowitz's otherwise fine mix of political voice-overs and indigenous music is marred only by an overly long, piercing helicopter cue near the show's end that left most of the audience members covering their ears.
Invariably, it is difficult to write, direct, act, or even watch a play about people professing, over and over again, what they believe and why they believe it. Still, director Mark Wing-Davey has put forth a production that often manages to inform, if not fully inspire. And with a theater arranged to replicate a schoolhouse (complete with three rows of hard wooden benches at the front), education may very well be the goal of this School of the Americas.