Killing the Boss
nytheatre.com review by Larry Kunofsky
February 9, 2008
Killing The Boss is a play about an American playwright working in an unnamed impoverished country, who tries to assassinate that country's prime minister, known not-so-affectionately as The Boss.
The playwright is Eve, a strong-willed, deeply compassionate teaching artist who is unwaveringly committed to the people of this unnamed country, especially to her students. She's here on a grant, but mainly funds her work on her own dime while working in a system that fails people in every direction, which is a struggle to which many artists and teachers both here and abroad can relate.
The Boss is a bad-karaoke-singing, selfish, greedy, vain, misogynistic, wealthier-than-imaginable despot, who admits to prettying up the airport for the tourists while the children of the country are too sick and too poor to attend school. I hope that no one reading this can relate to The Boss on a personal level, but we've all seen his kind—both here and abroad—before, and I'd guess that few of us would have too difficult a time holding back tears if someone were to come along and "take out the garbage." But at what price does anyone, even the most righteous among us, pay by taking global justice into their own hands with violence? This is one of the many intriguing questions that this play asks, albeit circuitously. It's a bumpy ride, but a compelling one.
The odds of Eve carrying out her self-imposed mission are not good. Like any self-respecting-but-loathed-by-all-others dictator, The Boss has an armed guard with him at all times. Eve's (and our) own government supports, in ways that are not always clear but always very strong, the reign of this P.M., as evidenced by the double-talking brown-nosing apologies and hypocrisies of the American Ambassador, who seems prepared to bend over backwards to make everybody happy, so long as The Boss is happy.
Eve has too much to lose in this losing game that she chooses to play. Back home, she has an adoring husband, Doug, who, as a stage actor suffering from a crippling disease (like the country in which the play takes place, this disease is never mentioned in the script by name, but resembles Multiple Sclerosis) clearly has enough problems of his own. Eve also has her immigrant parents, Monique and Pierre, who are always perplexed by Eve's globe-trotting and do-good-er-ing, but forever devoted to Eve herself, no matter what. So why would Eve risk losing her connection to all the love and support with which she's been so privileged? Perhaps the play's strongest answer to this question is in her connection to Sal, her driver, confidant, and student.
Sal wears a mask of his country's folk hero, the Red Monkey, and interprets the Red Monkey's struggle for peace through dance. Sal also writes plays for Eve that depict the anger and suffering of his people at the hand of The Boss. Sal is also forced to work exhausting and meaningless hours in the local blue jeans factory, no doubt taking years off his life, if not depriving him of his spirit. He is just as much an artist as Eve, but without any of the privilege, and he is but one of many who are constantly beaten down by The Boss's regime. And so Eve sets out on her mission.
Killing The Boss is an intelligent and heartfelt look at the dilemma that a well-intentioned but limited (in means and power, as well as in terms of realistic solutions to overwhelming problems) American faces in trying to make a change for the better in the troubling world-at-large. There are well-drawn characters, some lovely metaphors, some rather theatrical flourishes, and, best of all, many deep emotions and intriguing thoughts to provoke any audience. Sue Cremin, as Eve, has to virtually carry the whole play on her back, since she's very rarely offstage, and she does so admirably. The ensemble cast is quite good, and Alexis Camins as Sal and the Guard, and, most especially, Orville Mendoza as The Boss, are excellent.
There is, however, a great deal of this play that disappoints me. Jean Randich's direction is mostly good, but the staging seems to lack the particular energy contained in the script. I like the balance that the play tries to keep between its tragic overtones and its comic undertones, but, with the exception of some very-good-very-bad karaoke, there's very little that I found truly funny, causing a lamentable imbalance in the proceedings. There are a lot of quick lines of dialogue, but they too often fall flat. The relationship that Eve has with her various family members is always endearing, but these characters and their dynamics are rarely as amusing as the play seems to expect them to be.
I also found the tragic elements of the play a little hard to take, and this, ultimately, is my key problem with the play, despite my deep admiration for its message and its author. Although I'm quite sure of what story Catherine Filloux is telling about political oppression, I remain confused about what kind of story she is telling about her main character.
I found the scope and weight of Eve's character and actions to be too heroic and too tragic (in the classical sense—i.e., BIG and IMPORTANT, with grand and inevitable outcome and weight) for me to swallow. Despite Eve's fool's errand and the tragic situation surrounding it, and despite my admiration for the real-life author's real-life commitment (Catherine Filloux has taught in Cambodia and is committed to human rights), I remain confused by how we are expected to feel about an American playwright trying to assassinate a political leader. It does seem to be a metaphor for the well-meaning but ineffectual gestures generally thought of as typical liberal politics, and perhaps the author of the play is playing with our perceptions of Liberalism. But is Eve a comic or tragic figure, and why?
There is something absurdly funny about a person in Eve's place in life trying to go toe-to-toe with someone like The Boss, but it is rarely depicted as comical within the play. I suspect that we are expected to root wholeheartedly for Eve and to see her as the Great White Hope, if you will, among the suffering Asians, and this seems more than a little glib to me. I was only comfortable with Eve as a character when the author's (and, perhaps, the actor's and the director's) depiction of her was self-effacing, instead of (perhaps unwittingly) self-aggrandizing.
Nevertheless, this is a play very much worth seeing. You will no doubt engage in heated and satisfying conversations about the themes of the play afterwards (as I did). You will also, most assuredly, gain a strong admiration for the playwright (as I did), who fights injustice in one of the strongest ways possible, by writing about it with passion and conviction.