Latino Chicago Theater Company

at the Firehouse

Like its subject, the El Salvadoran Jesuit priest Oscar Romero, Nicholas Patricca’s play The Fifth Sun is a work divided–between outrage at the injustices of a repressive regime on the one hand and intellectual self-absorption and spiritual introspection on the other. Like other plays about rellgious-political martyrs–T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Jean Anoullh’s Becket, and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons come immediately to mind–The Fifth Sun is about a man of words, a man for whom words are more powerful tools than any action. Such a man may well be wrong; I never could figure out what Sir Thomas More finally accomplished, and it’s not clear that Oscar Romero accomplished much of practical value by his death either. But such men are held up as Christlike sacrificial symbols; and to a religious* mind, the martyrdom of such men is in itself an act of value, one that redeems us by its love and integrity.

By drawing heavily on the iconography of both Mayan and Christian mythology, The Fifth Sun is an especially direct purveyor of this point of view. Oscar Romero–archbishop of San Salvador from February 1977 until March 1980, when he was murdered by a right-wing death squad while saying mass–is presented from the start as a sacrificial lamb. Patricca makes reference both to the crucifixion of Jesus and to the ancient Mayan myth of the Fifth Sun–son of the Lord of the Universe who voluntarily sacrifices himself for the good of the world. Thus, The Fifth Sun combines elements of Christian mystery play and Mayan temple drama. It is in this jumbling together of styles and cultural cross-references that The Fifth Sun seeks its identity as poetic drama, rather than just one more play about a man giving up his life for is principles.

The problem is, so much stylistic experimentation can obscure the facts. In Juan A. Ramirez’s staging of the play for Latino Chicago Theater, the basic thrust of the El Salvadoran situation comes through loud and clear: peasants are wantonly gunned down by paramilitary death squads (the “White Warriors of Christ”) while the Roman Catholic Church, despite its mission to protect and advocate for the poor, does nothing. Appointed archbishop with the expectation that he will continue this tradition of passive neglect, Oscar Romero evolves into an outspoken voice against the excesses of the ruling oligarchs and for the necessity of the peasantry to organize in their own defense.

But beyond those broad terms, little of the specifics of Romero’s tumultuous tenure is clear. The actors shift in and out of various roles–symbolic god figures, fleeing peasants, revolutionary priests, mysterious assassins so quickly that we’re not sure who’s what when. (“Oh, that’s the Nuncio,” one woman in the audience blurted out during the second act the night I was there. Since the Nuncio, the papal representative who opposes Romero’s liberationist stance, is a major character throughout the play’s action, this woman missed a good deal of what was going on in the first act; but the fault was not hers.)

Further cluttering the proceedings is Ramirez’s decision to play the first act and much of the second in a “cartoon” style–adding an element of agitprop street theater to Patricca’s theatrical mythologizing. Thus, Romero–played by Frank Davila in the production’s one sure, authoritative performance–starts out as a sort of Groucho Marxian clown and transforms gradually into a compelling figure of authority, gravity, and compassion. But why? Was Romero less of a man before he was radicalized? And what about his two sidekicks, a tart-tongued American nun (modeled after a friend of the playwright’s, on whose experience some of the play is based) and a militant priest (played here as a cigar-chomping spoof on Fidel Castro)? Perhaps because of flaws in the acting, these characters never break free of their two-dimensional cartoon mannerisms; the priest doesn’t have a chance to, since his early murder is one of the acts that prods Romero into activism. This cartoon style also works against Patricca’s dialogue, which has an ironic, well-made-play sort of hauteur to it; the wit is almost completely lost in Ramirez’s perverse against-the-text direction.

This revival of The Fifth Sun is certainly timely–after a period of relative calm during the past few years, there has been a resurgence of domestic terrorism from both the right and the left (according to statistics provided by the Catholic church, there were as many death squad killings in the first three months of 1988 as in all of 1987). But Ramirez’s approach, apparently intended to bring extra energy to Patricca’s play of words, basically doesn’t work–despite some superb individual touches, such as a puppet paratrooper descending from the sky to spray the stage with bullets and a dynamic (if out-of-character) conclusion with the cast singing and dancing to a Ruben Blades record. What this play needs is a big staging that matches the grandeur of the Catholic church with the grit of the world around it, one that guides us through the specifics of El Salvadoran politics while conveying the mythic resonances of Romero’s story.