Miss Margarida’s Way

TurnAround Theatre

Miss Margarida would love the story that ran atop the front page of last Sunday’s Tribune. Headlined “From Top of the Class to the Mainstream,” the article reported on a 15-year survey of Illinois high school valedictorians that found secondary education’s best and brightest tended to “settle into the system instead of shaking it up.” As the researcher opined, “Essentially, we are rewarding conformity” rather than real talent or vision.

That’s just the way Miss Margarida wants it. The heroine of Roberto Athayde’s blistering satire on sex, school, and society is a psychotic superteacher who wants to prepare a generation of well-adjusted adults–good little consumers who won’t shake up the status quo epitomized by her beloved but unseen principal, to whom she offers a devout genuflection combined with a stiff-armed Nazi salute. By rapid turns sweet, seductive, sarcastic, and sadistic, Miss M. truly believes her brainwashing is benevolent. Sure, she sometimes lashes out at her “students”–the audience–calling us assholes and faggots; but it’s only because she loves us and wants us to be good. Striding off her dais (the stage) into the classroom (the tiny TurnAround Theatre, in whose intimate environs she truly seems larger-than-life), Miss M. fixes us with mean little eyes that peer over apple-red cheeks, correcting our posture and our politics–reminding us that she has the power, if not of life and death, at least to keep us in our seats after the bell rings.

This being the first day of the new term, she tantalizes us with the promise of sex education to come (absently fingering her crotch as she talks of how “tender” she can be), then makes us settle for quick lessons in biology (“All of you are going to die”), history (“Everyone wants to dominate everyone else”), English (“Write an essay describing your own funeral”), and math (a division problem using make-believe bananas teaches us how to get as much as we can for ourselves while everyone else goes hungry). But these subjects are just reflections of the larger truth she teaches by leading us in her classroom catechism: “The deserving ones, who are they? They are those who obey.”

A metaphor for the authoritarian regimes witnessed firsthand by its Brazilian author, Miss Margarida’s Way is also an absurdly exaggerated but fundamentally accurate study of a paranoid personality. A one-woman tour de force complete with audience participation, it’s a virtuoso display for any actor bold enough to tackle it. It was a widely acclaimed vehicle for Estelle Parsons, who played it under Athayde’s direction at the Goodman Studio in 1982, but in part because of her celebrity it felt a little false; when this Oscar winner interacted with viewers, it was more an exercise in campy role-playing than the virtual-reality shocker it’s meant to be. Though Karen Vaccaro is an off-Loop artist with a substantial list of credits, she’s not a star; that, along with her formidable talent, helps her create a far more memorable and believable performance in this self-produced showcase.

Vaccaro gives a bravura rendition of Miss M.’s mood swings: she’s pathetic, scary, and outrageously funny as she veers from soothing sweetness to weepy self-pity to boastful arrogance to psychotic rage. Under Patrick Towne’s canny direction, Vaccaro uses her enormous but agile girth, supple voice, and expressive face to wonderfully hilarious and horrific effect. Intimidating us with martial-arts displays at once violent and voluptuous, she looks like a sumo wrestler in drag; incongruously costumed in a floor-length dress made of the same drab plaid that adorns schoolgirls’ uniforms around the world, she’s larger-than-life, striding around the stage and among the seats, coaxing and browbeating and threatening us–for our own good, of course. (After all, she reminds us, every failed test “is a disgrace that will mark your life forever.”)

Except for a climax that’s predictable without being dramatically inevitable, this is a brilliant comic showpiece that shouldn’t be missed. Besides, sitting through it can be both a cautionary and a therapeutic experience; we’ve probably all suffered under a Miss (or Mr.) Margarida–if not a teacher, then an employer or a supervisor or a landlord or a parent. Athayde was inspired by his observations of Latin American political, military, and religious dictatorships (whose ire he raised with the play’s premiere in Rio de Janeiro), but the hypnotic mixed messages his heroine sends as she whimsically careens from contemptuous cruelty to parental protectiveness just as accurately reflect our own dysfunctional democracy–or for that matter television, the “Miss Margarida” that holds pride of place in the American home, telling us what to believe and how to feel and reminding us that fitting in is our best hope for happiness.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Isabel Raci.