A Woman's Work

Tina Modotti is certainly a colorful public figure whose life, on paper, makes for a compelling story. Unfortunately, Wendy Beckett’s play Modotti, now playing at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre, turns out to be a misguided attempt at dramatizing such a colorful life. Modotti (portrayed by Alysia Reiner), nee Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini in Italy, immigrated to the San Francisco area as a teenager. She flirted with acting and modeling after getting involved with a bohemian crowd. Soon she embarked on a more successful career as a photographer.

However, Beckett, who directed as well, emphasizes the more dramatic events in Modotti’s romantic life, notably her tempestuous relationship with fellow photographer Edward Weston (Jack Gwaltney). Eventually, Modotti ends up in Mexico, where she begins rallying for political causes, and gets entangled with Communists like muralist Diego Rivera (Marco Greco) as well as writers Bertram (Mark Zeisler) and Ella Wolfe (Dee Pelletier).

The play becomes little more than a chronological catalog of events in Modotti’s life – the men that came and went, her stint in jail due to her activism. Modotti’s scenes provide a sketch of the facts (some, at least) of her life, but it doesn’t dig particularly deep into her personality. Beckett appears to have a lot of respect for the woman, but gives her little personality to demonstrate. Where does her fire come from? Does she ever feel a sense of loss for anything of the ideas or people on whom she turns her back?

Part of the problem with Beckett’s structure is that, by now, it feels tired; the linear narrative no longer possesses much dramatic power. There are a couple of options that would make Modotti stand more on its own. For one thing, she could focus on a specific period in the artist-activist’s life. The specific drama would provide a more contained dramatic structure as well as provide ways to elucidate Modotti’s personality.

Another choice would be to create a more subjective show instead of sheer biography. Does Beckett have her own theories as to what motivated the woman, why she treated men the way she did, or what really happened during her ambiguous final years? Giving this show more of a thesis would also give it more personality.

And yet Modotti should in no way be written off entirely, if for no other reason than the skilled performance of its leading lady. Reiner holds the stage for the play’s entirety, and even when the script doesn’t do justice to the character, the actress certainly does, showing how her insatiable appetite for life made her magnetic to anyone who came near her. One hopes she rebounds with a stronger theatrical vehicle soon. The other actors in the ensemble turn in serviceable work – Gwaltney, in particular, is a very charismatic presence.

I hold out hope for Modotti. It’s an imperfect look at an important woman, but it is not too late to bring this look into focus.

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