ÁChe-Che-Che! (A Latin Fugue in 5/8 Time)

Latino Chicago Theater Company

By Carol Burbank

In his director’s note, Juan A. Ramirez complains about Chicago theaters’ idea of “Latino/Hispanic theater,” which he says “looks like a cross between a made-for-TV movie and the Gabriel Garcia Marquez collection at Crate and Barrel. Shame on you.” But he might just as easily have pointed the finger of shame at his own production, a disappointing, imprecise faux-Brechtian biography of Che Guevara by Migdalia Cruz. Latino Chicago Theater Company falls into another Chicago theater abyss–the sloppy dramaturgy of shows with multiple narrators. Chicago has developed a national reputation with its exports of adaptations, the most successful of them Frank Galati’s virtuoso homages to great books and Mary Zimmerman’s entertaining visual spectacles. But not every playwright and director can frame a literary or historical tale with such skill. Too often they fill the stage with narrators who drop in and out of underdeveloped roles, pushing scenes along with static ideas and pretentious metaphorical dogma, communicating directly with the audience, and leaving the story behind on the pages of sourcebooks.

ÁChe-Che-Che! (A Latin Fugue in 5/8 Time) hangs that Chicago albatross around its neck and drones on for two acts. Ramirez and codirector Meighan Gerachis have managed to highlight most of the flaws and few of the strengths of Cruz’s script by concentrating on her three narrators–Live Che, Dead Che, and Old Che. In this limp cha-cha, the three Ches declaim, mutter, and meander through an assessment of Guevara’s life and politics that ends with Ches imagined burial, as his remains are returned to Cuba and eulogized by a palsied, aged Castro.

Cruz faces a legitimate theatrical problem: How can she give Che Guevara, more icon than man, a theatrical voice? How can she bring him out of the hero’s closet to express her sense of his complexity, idealistic absolutism, and self-sacrificing arrogance? Trying to provide some kind of distance from conventional characterization, she alternates between surreal dance scenes, introspective “I remember Che” monologues by the ensemble, and seminaturalistic re-enactments of scenes by Live Che. But creating a three-headed narrator is a problematic solution that might have been more workable in a tighter, less self-important production.

To Cruz’s credit, she makes Dead Che (Dale Rivera) a voice of harsh self-assessment; he looks back on Live Che with a mixture of distaste and rage. Like some masochistic Emily from an agitprop Our Town, Dead Che relives his past and sees how little he cared for or protected the people who trusted him. Through Dead Che’s eyes, we understand Guevara as a machinelike, selfish ideologue, a view that gradually dominates despite frequent passionate tributes to the revolution and Guevara’s leadership. Dead Che is the primary narrator, and he has the presumed self-knowledge of the newly dead. If he doesn’t like himself, why should we?

Dead Che’s disgust is softened a bit by the rambling, cryptic poetry of Old Che (Gregorio Gomez), who reflects Guevara’s scholarly spirit–he’s a hedonist/philosopher in silky green pajamas who lives the lazy, privileged life Che might have claimed in Argentina. But both of these spirits merely talk about Che’s life, imagined or real–they’re omniscient narrators guiding the restless audience through Guevara’s long, slow, somewhat abstract decline into iconography. All the while Live Che (Eduardo Von)–who speaks only in Spanish–belts out political slogans at the stoic audience, poses with a carved gun, and seduces scantily clad women. The three conflicting stories of the three Ches is an intriguing but risky choice that transfers the play’s tension into its narration and overshadows the drama of Guevara’s life. The story becomes a play about Cruz’s ideas, a crude attempt to embody her mixed feelings onstage.

So the seeds of the production’s problems are in its script. But stronger direction would have prevented much of the tedium and confusion that overwhelm the playwright’s highly personal relationship with Guevara’s myth and history. By limiting the production’s flickering clarity to the spirit-narrators, the directors flatten the scenes involving Live Che into cartoons, yet they demand from the actors none of the specificity that makes cartoons powerful. In the first scene, for example, the ensemble marches in loose formation into the theater, lowers the huge canvas image of Guevara that serves as a curtain, and folds it, supposedly as they would a flag. But because the actors show none of the military precision the ritual demands, they make the exercise look more like folding laundry than interring a symbol of national honor. The same laxness characterizes the “I remember Che” monologues, compact and poetic confessions delivered with bland calmness, as if the men and women who loved Guevara were passionless zombies who loved out of obligation, like servants obeying orders.

This unfocused performance style is even more intolerable during the dance sequences, in which female cast members invariably and inexplicably wear slips and dance seductively with various fully dressed guerrilla fighters, spirits, or local boys eager for attention. Ironically, these scenes are the most animated, with ensemble members exhibiting a seemingly heartfelt playfulness. Yet playing these parodically unnatural scenes naturalistically serves the opposite of their purpose in Cruz’s delicate theatrical structure. She includes enough clues in the text–particularly in Dead Che’s longing to show the women he’d abandoned how much their unappreciated sacrifices meant to him–to indicate that in her mind these staged dances are more than voyeuristic fantasy. Yet they’re treated as asides, performed without irony or any understanding of their sexism and cultural stereotypes. Unless I’ve misread Cruz’s attempt at creating what she calls “a dark human altar” to Guevara, she has a more complex vision of the sexually charged world of revolution than the simple sexual voraciousness and vulnerability portrayed here. And without a clear performance of the surrealistic link she seems to be drawing between machismo and female submission/aggression, her deconstruction of Guevara’s iconic sweaty, stone-faced, manly-man arrogance becomes a vaguely troubled celebration of the seductive power of Latin men and the unquestioned sexiness of revolutionary ideology.

The directors’ blindness to the ironies in the script’s repeated criticisms of Guevara’s character, the interruptions that the dance sequences represent, and Live Che’s macho posturing obscure Cruz’s attempt to complicate Guevara’s status as a cultural icon. And without an ironic sensibility, Cruz’s campy aphorisms sound like deadpan announcements from a militaristic melodrama. “Leaders don’t have time to be human,” intones Dead Che from his hyperactive grave, as the dull-eyed but still apparently sexy Live Che pushes away yet another woman who’s climbed into his bed without touching his heart. And the spirit-narrators look on enigmatically as Live Che repeatedly directs his stony gaze over the audience’s heads, reliving the pose of the photograph we see on buttons everywhere.

No matter how skilled, the three actor-narrators cannot bear the burden of this drifting production. Cast in impossible roles, they shrug off any real attachment to the action and perform as if appearing in a scene for just an instant were enough to create a character. But the trapped glint in their eyes, which performers get when they’re describing rather than embodying ideas and actions, signals that narration by itself is not enough. Walking in turn to the edge of the stage, they step out of scenes to speak desperately into the darkness of the audience, laughing or shouting a little hysterically as if by sheer willpower they could get us to see what is never shown onstage–Guevara’s humanity, fractured within the macho role of a revolutionary, which has made him into what Cruz calls “the last romantic hero of Latin America.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.