Land o' Fire
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 18, 2007
Jersey City Theater Center makes an impressive debut with the world premiere of Luis Santeiro's fascinating historical play, Land O' Fire. The "Christianization" of three 19th century natives of Tierra Del Fuego lies at the heart of this lively examination of one foreign culture's influence on another. Jorge Cacheiro's inventive story theatre-style staging and a smooth-as-butter ensemble make Land O' Fire a worthwhile introduction to this promising new company.
The backdrop is the HMS Beagle, a British naval ship, and its two voyages to Tierra Del Fuego in the 1820s and 1830s. The ship's captain, Robert Fitzroy, acquires/kidnaps three local natives ("Fuegians," as they're called), and brings them back to England for a little experiment: to see if the "savages" can be "civilized." Fitzroy's three young charges are a girl called Fuegia Basket (named so because of a Fuegian boat that resembles one); a boy named Jemmy Button (because he was "bought" with shiny buttons); and a moody fellow named York Minster (named after some rocks near where he was captured). Their schooling involves English language instruction, the use of dining utensils, the proper way to bow and curtsy, and other refinements of British life. Fitzroy, keenly interested in all types of science, can't wait to see how well the Fuegians adapt. What he doesn't anticipate is the possibility that they'll adjust so well they won't want to go back to their homeland.
Fuegia assimilates easily, but is pliable: she can take Christian life or leave it, especially after she romantically hooks up with the brutish York (or rather, he just claims her for himself), who refuses to conform. It's the sweet-natured Jemmy who really takes to British life, morphing into a proper English gentleman, and looking up to Fitzroy like a father figure.
But, Fitzroy has other ideas: namely, returning the Fuegians to Tierra Del Fuego to serve as Christian missionaries.
Santeiro's overall theme—the enforced imposition of one culture's practices onto another one's—is heavy, but the author throws in plenty of light and humorous moments to make the rest go down easy. There's the Fuegian's first English lesson, in which the ship's pastor tries to teach them the names for their body parts, but York only wants to put his hand on Fuegia's leg. Once in England, Fitzroy's snobby mother is disgusted by any mention of the Fuegians—that is, until they become popular topics of discussion in high society. Then there's the innocent, but awkward, crush that Jemmy develops on Fitzroy's sister, Fanny.
But, Land O' Fire has larger things on its mind, like the overall exploitation of the Fuegians. Even though he thinks they're wonderful, Fitzroy never considers the Fuegians anything more than an experiment. The King and Queen even give them an audience at court, having heard quite a lot about them. But, everywhere they go, the Fuegians are viewed more as a dog-and-pony show than as actual human beings. All the while, the British never stop to consider what effect this is having on their hostages (since that's basically what they are). Stripped of their families, their homeland, and everything else familiar, Fuegia, York, and Jemmy struggle to survive to various degrees (e.g., York, having never sailed the ocean, is nauseous and seasick all the way across the Atlantic).
The entire cast works like a well-oiled machine, with each part contributing mightily to the overall whole. Joseph Mesiano solidly anchors the production with a fine performance as Fitzroy. Jassim Lone, Marisa Marquez, and Malachy Orozco each lend a helping hand with equally good turns as York, Fuegia, and Jemmy, respectively. And, Dacyl Acevedo, Satomi Blair, and Ian Sinclair Lassiter all provide good, versatile support in a number of smaller roles.
There are a couple of parts where I think Santeiro could probe his source material deeper—like giving the audience more insight into the thoughts and feelings of the Fuegians, and exploring the historical implications of having Charles Darwin on the crew of the Beagle (for real)—but, all in all, Land O' Fire is a thought-provoking play that leaves one wanting to learn more about this chapter of history. This production is a fine calling card for Jersey City Theater Center, and it will be interesting to see what they come up with next.