School of the Americas
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 30, 2006
The facts, in broad outline, are these: that Che Guevara, the Argentine doctor-turned-guerrilla, left Castro's Cuba to foment more Marxist revolution elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere; that he ended up in Bolivia in 1967, where a lack of support among the locals led to his capture by the government; that he was taken to a remote schoolhouse in the village of La Higuera; and that there, in or near the school, he was shot and killed by the Bolivian Army.
One more fact: Che was visited by the woman who taught school in this ramshackle building, one Julia Cortes. (The real Julia is still alive; see this article.)
In press materials for his new play School of the Americas, Jose Rivera says he wants to imagine what the unknown schoolteacher and the legendary revolutionary talked about. This is, I suppose, a potentially interesting area of inquiry (and if one were interested in the truth, one could presumably ask Ms. Cortes and put her in the center of such a play). Rivera, though, seems interested in a dramatic "truth" that, while not grounded in actualities, might prove more satisfying. But what he's written in this play never feels remotely plausible.
Instead, School of the Americas seems to have been created solely for a moment of shock value in its second act, when the rabidly anti-American Che steps onto a metaphorical soapbox and rails against the United States as the enemy of the civilized world and the cause of all its problems. Even in a climate less touchy than the one we live in, such direct condemnation of the country in which one lives can only feel controversial, even incendiary; the speech brought forth assorted gasps from the audience and then a collective holding-of-breath.
But, I wondered, what is Rivera really trying to say to us here? Does he agree with Che that the capitalist/imperialist model practiced by the U.S.A. is inherently flawed and ought to be replaced with a strict Communist model that has pretty much failed everywhere it's been applied?
Does he want us to sift through Che's ideas and rhetoric to find something valuable and relevant to our current situation?
Alas, if he does, he provides us with no means to do so: there's precious little context or philosophical / political / economic argument in his script, which instead focuses on how an encounter with the charismatic, sexy, conflicted Guevara changes the life of the repressed, Catholic, conflicted Julia. Rivera's story plays like The King and I: starchy schoolteacher meets barbaric warlord and both are transformed: he becomes softer and gentler, she becomes tougher and raunchier.
Whatever Rivera's intent, it seems ill-served in this co-production by LAByrinth Theater Company and the Public Theater, which is as overproduced a play as I've seen in decades of theatre-going. The intimate story is overshadowed by Andromache Chalfant's enormously elaborate set, a contraption that does all sorts of tricks to morph from tiny dark one-room schoolhouse to tiny dark one-room schoolteacher's house (we actually see each locale from two different angles here). There's also a multimedia component, and, providing a weird verisimilitude for an unlucky two dozen or so patrons, seating on backless wooden benches in the front few rows of the audience.
And I haven't even mentioned the chickens. (William Berloni is credited as animal trainer; what show, apart from the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, needs to have actual livestock on stage?)
The chickens—seen in a few brief moments when the action unfolds outside the schoolhouse—provide a level of naturalism that's decidedly at odds with Rivera's disregard for realism in his text. I suspect that School of the Americas really wants to be magic realism, showing us an impossible situation in order to teach us something about human nature. But Mark Wing-Davey's overblown staging and John Ortiz's wooden, relentlessly earthbound performance as Che subvert any hope for a flight of fancy; and Rivera's own decision to juxtapose his tale of yearnings for home, hope, and love onto an iconic figure already overloaded with sociopolitical baggage proves still more damaging. In the end, School of the Americas is neither enjoyable as fiction nor compelling as meditation on fact. I don't know what the heck it is; it's certainly not successful theatre.