Fight the Power

Subversives--living 620 years apart--star in fine productions at Borderlands and The Rogue Theatre

Borderlands Theater and Rogue Theatre opened good, intelligent productions last weekend, but clearly, the more compelling of the two is the more compact, concentrated presentation at Borderlands, José Rivera's School of the Americas.

Rivera is best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries, a movie about the young, pre-Revolutionary Che Guevara finding himself on a long road trip. School of the Americas gives us Che at the other end of his life. After helping lead the Cuban revolution, he has floundered in unsuccessful left-wing guerrilla efforts in Africa and South America; now, in 1967, he has ended his last failed campaign after being captured by the Bolivian military and a CIA operative. Bloodied, bound and wheezing from asthma, he spends some of his final hours on the floor of a squalid schoolroom--debating economic theory and grammar with a feisty young schoolteacher.

That last part is Rivera's own invention, but it brings a much-needed human dimension to the final two days of Che's life, which, Rivera hints, had devolved into fighting and sloganeering with little real appreciation of the impoverished people he was trying to empower.

The village schoolteacher, Julia Cortes, has undertaken her own fight, but she has as little to show for it as Che. She's lucky if five students show up for class; she teaches them in a dirty, ramshackle little room, and despite her high-minded talk, she's beaten down by the futility of the endeavor.

Initially, Rivera makes us think that he's playing a revolutionary (Che) against a romantic (Julia), but over the course of the play, it becomes clear that there is necessarily a bit of romantic idealism in every revolutionary, and a romantic need not be a passive dreamer. Initially wary of each other, Che and Julia gradually come to terms over the course of two increasingly flirtatious encounters.

Rivera's portrait of Che is by no means hagiographic, but it is not sufficiently damning to satisfy doctrinaire anti-communists, who will no doubt dismiss this play as liberal naiveté. It's much more than that, though, particularly in Borderlands' compelling production.

As Che, Armando Ortega transforms the dreamy-defiant T-shirt icon into a real, damaged man, angry, profoundly disillusioned. Rivera gives the character a tremendous, impassioned speech toward the end that ought to become standard audition material for Hispanic actors, yet who would dare try it after seeing Ortega's heartbreaking performance?

Marissa Garcia is absolutely faultless as Julia, convincing in her schoolteacher sternness ("Don't make me come out there," she shouts to rowdy soldiers in the street) and in her emotional vulnerability in Che's presence. Equally fine in secondary roles are Angelica Rodenbeck as Julia's sickly sister, who trusts faith and instinct above education, and Dwayne Palmer as the Cuban-born, CIA-paid lieutenant holding Che; he hates what Che has done to his country, yet he has also been betrayed by his American friends, and in his harsh, bullying way, he is nearly as conflicted as the main characters.

Director Eva Tessler keeps everything tightly focused, even while encouraging the actors to tease out the bits of humor Rivera scatters through the play. John Longhofer has designed one of his most effective sets, layered and evocative, and María Rebeca Cartes, herself a refugee from 1970s Chilean oppression, provides apt musical accompaniment.

"I am a small, failed, stupid man," Che spits toward the end of this play. And today, with Fidel Castro near death and his Soviet-style government likely to follow him into the grave, Che's efforts do seem to have been an utter waste. Even so, School of the Americas hints that Che's true legacy may lie not in mass social movements, but in tiny revolutions, one schoolroom at a time.

Defeated subversives are also the subject of Peter Barnes' Red Noses, a typically ambitious undertaking by Tucson's Rogue Theatre. In 1347, in plague-ridden France, a monk named Flote gets a message from God--and it amounts to a punch line. Father Flote, flailing like Jack Sparrow when God pokes him in the ribs, realizes how he can ease the suffering around him.

"I hear you, Lord, in the sound of their laughter," he says. "I now know what I must do. Heaven's to be had with my humiliation."

Father Flote dons a red clown nose and recruits a troupe of misfits and mercenaries to tour in a medieval vaudeville show. Bringing laughter to the dying gives meaning to the lives of this motley crew. Think of it as the very first clown ministry.

At first, the sequestered Pope Clement VI gives his approval to Flote's Red Noses, but once the plague abates, he realizes what a threat to his authority laughter and satire can be. Renaissance and Reformation individualism are many years in the future, and Father Flote, alas, is a man dangerously ahead of his time.

Barnes ultimately made a living adapting classics for the Hallmark Channel and crafting the gentle screenplay for Enchanted April, but on his own, he was a master of satire and anarchy. The quintessential Barnes opus is the cult classic The Ruling Class, in which Peter O'Toole plays an English nobleman who believes himself to be Jesus. Or maybe Jack the Ripper. Red Noses, too, is full of intellectual provocation, good lines ("I don't have to be wise, just decisive" foreshadows the Bush administration) and outright zaniness. Rogue's production is outstanding in every respect but the last.

Among the best actors in roles large and small are Leanné Whitewolf Charlton, Steve Cruz, Cynthia Meier, Michael Mill, David Morden and especially Clark Andreas Ray. Joseph McGrath doubles as Flote and the production's director, and seems to see himself as something of a shepherd in both roles. His Flote is a gentle, intelligent, earnest man who has humor thrust upon him. Patty Gallagher, as a mute minstrel who communicates through pantomime and bell-ringing, knows exactly what this show needs, and is an amazing bundle of precision energy and high spirits. If only the rest of the Red Nose antics had her impact. Harlan Hokin's eclectic music direction is a real plus, but overall, the presentation is too subtle for maximum effect.

Even with some apparent cuts, this show runs 3 1/2 hours, the first act alone occupying two. As one character says, "I've suffered for my art; now, it's your turn." Still, even though the action could stand the occasional pie in the face, Rogue's Red Noses sprawls but doesn't flop.