Latino Chicago Theater Company

There’s a certain brand of friendship between men–glamorized in literature for so long that it’s become archetypal–that surpasses mere loyalty and verges on slavishness. These men never have to indulge in idle chitchat; they understand each other deeply, respect each other, anticipate each other’s needs. They are buddies, partners, compadres. Together, they can take on the world and win. Until a woman comes along. Traditionally, this is the only thing that can stop them. There is no room in the equation for a woman; she introduces a tension that the heretofore rock-solid friendship simply cannot endure, and so it collapses.

Cherrie Moraga’s melodramatic play Shadow of a Man, being staged at the Latino Chicago Theater Company, isn’t about the collapse itself but about the wreckage such a collapse causes in one family. Manuel Rodriguez is so wrapped up in his memories of his compadre Conrado that he can’t appreciate the family he has attained as a sort of trade-off. He mourns the loss of both Conrado and his youth while his children grow up unnoticed around him and his wife shoulders the blame for destroying the perfect friendship. To top things off, we learn at the start of the play that Manuel’s son is rejecting both his heritage and Manuel himself by marrying a “gringa,” which means Manuel is losing his only surrogate for Conrado, and once again because of a woman’s interference.

Manuel drinks heavily and enters a deep depression, fearing that his youngest daughter, Lupe, will grow up and leave him alone. Meanwhile, there is a good chance that Lupe is actually Conrado’s daughter; long ago, in a fit of misguided munificence, Manuel offered Conrado his new wife for the night, thinking it would bring a little life back into their friendship. It’s a strange gesture, and one that’s a little hard to swallow outside the arena of afternoon soap operas.

The play itself moves with the slow-footedness of a soap opera, and Carmen Aguilar’s direction does very little to center this scattered drama about a dysfunctional family. Then again, there doesn’t seem to be much of a center to it. At first the script concentrates on Manuel’s preteen daughter Lupe and her preoccupation with Catholic theology; her brother’s betrayal and her father’s palpable disinterest in his family are seen through her eyes. Eventually, however, the play abandons her perspective in favor of a firsthand view of her parents’ strained relationship. There’s Manuel’s painful memories of a better life with his buddy, and the secret attraction his wife feels for Conrado. All of this is accompanied by a heavy-handed lighting design. Whenever something important is about to be said, the lights dim and a spot comes up on the character with the wisdom to dole out or the secret to tell. From time to time there’s also the blurry shadow of a man against the back wall of the stage–a cloying reminder of the show’s title.

One thing Aguilar did do was coax some strong performances out of her cast. Everyone does as respectable a job as one can expect with the melodramatic material. In particular, Laurie Martinez as Hortencia, Manuel’s wife, delivers a fine show of strength, and she’s convincingly stretched to the breaking point when she can’t get her husband to so much as touch her. As Manuel, Gustavo Mellado gives such a convincing and nuanced performance that I long to see him play a character who still has some sort of stake in life. Manuel has long since lost it all. Watching him flail listlessly through the tedious fallout of his life decisions is not enough to sustain either sympathy or interest.


Fundacion Rajatabla

International Theatre Festival

Another son is lost in No One Writes to the Colonel, offered last week by Venezuela’s Fundacion Rajatabla as part of the International Theatre Festival. This son is lost not to marriage but to a repressive political regime, and long before the play starts: he was shot while distributing clandestine newspapers at a cockfight, leaving his father–the colonel in the title–and mother with only the rooster he was betting on. They could’ve sold the rooster and had enough to live on for a time, but the bird came to represent hope for the colonel, so they’ve kept it. Meanwhile the colonel is waiting for the pension check he was promised for fighting in the revolution. As the play begins, he’s been waiting 60 years.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose short story this production was based on, is reputedly leery about allowing his stories to be adapted to the stage, and with good reason. His protagonists often battle futility with the only weapon they have–patience. The colonel winds his clock, debates with his wife about whether the pension check will come this week, passes time speaking with a character known simply as the Doctor. But nothing really happens. A story in which nothing much happens can read like a dream, but the stage generally calls for action of some sort. The torrents of rain and the slow-motion funerals in this production, while interesting to the eye, were no substitute for some sort of forward motion. While the Colonel waits on a beautifully decayed set, a bald figure representing death wanders aimlessly around the stage like a refugee from The Seventh Seal, presumably looking for something to do, as bewildered as the audience. Despair makes for fine drama, but stagnation never plays.