Teatro Vista and Victory Gardens Theater

Victory Gardens Studio Theater

Television has no country. It’s easily translated from one language into another–the philosophies that go into and pour out of the set are so instantly recognizable and widely accepted that TV has become a culture unto itself.

Take Teatro Vista and Victory Gardens Theater’s English-language premiere of The Show Host, written by Venezuelan playwright Rodolfo Santana and translated by Juan Pazos. The play’s Latino origins are merely incidental. There is nothing peculiarly Latino about its perspective. The audience doesn’t need to scale any cultural barriers to understand it. It’s about TV, and we all understand TV, or think we do. And because television follows the same set of rules no matter where you live, it’s dependable. It’s a constant. It’s a logical alternative to religion, more comforting and far more predictable than God. It’s claimed many people, as both disciples and victims. We meet two of them in The Show Host.

Marcelo Ginero (John Carlos Seda), the general manger of a Venezuelan television station, has just been kidnapped by Carlos (Henry Godinez), a television fan with an ax to grind. At first it seems that Carlos is simply very unhappy with the final episode of his favorite soap, “Tear Apart My Life.” Holding Ginero hostage in a chicken coop outfitted with a half dozen television sets, Carlos forces him to play out a happier ending, one that Carlos believes will influence his own unhappy love life. It soon becomes evident that Carlos is more than just a little deranged, though it’s not clear whether his fixation with TV is the cause or the symptom. At any rate TV has sucked him in and made him a believer. It’s his gospel, and any attempt by Ginero to discredit that gospel leads to spastic fumblings with the gun Carlos keeps in his pocket. “I’ll kill you like a cockroach,” he drawls in the corn-pone tones of a TV gunslinger. Because television is Carlos’s only frame of reference, he is a truly dangerous person despite his nebbishy exterior and the little-boy honesty that almost makes him appealing.

Ginero, riddled with ulcers and as much a prisoner of television in his way as Carlos, tries to explain that TV is simply a business, that the soul craves a deeper religion. Eventually, though, he finds himself pulled into the TV scenarios that initially Carlos had had to force on him. Soon he’s playing by Carlos’s rules, and in earnest. No one has to explain these rules to him, or to the audience. Anyone with a TV knows them by heart. Hero/villain, mother/child, game-show host/contestant–all these roles require strictly regulated behavior, no deviations allowed.

The real surprises in The Show Host lie not in the script but in how easily we follow Carlos’s reasoning and how quick we are to understand him. There was more than an occasional gasp from the audience, not of surprise but of recognition. Clearly Carlos is one lunatic who can capture the collective psyche of an American audience. He may be Venezuelan but he speaks TV so well.

It’s hard to believe Edward F. Torres is making his directing debut with The Show Host: the play moves along at a smooth, professional pace and there isn’t a wasted moment or wrong move. Although with this script it would have been easy to slip into broad comedy, Torres reins in his actors when you’d least expect it and treats you to a moment of honesty instead. When Carlos mourns a deceased soap-opera character, it’s as if he’s lost a brother, and Ginero’s struggle to remain dignified in a pink dress and long blond wig is heroic. The effect is both funny and painful.

Godinez, a very fine actor with the sort of good looks that usually scream “leading man,” gets the chance to revel in physical comedy. His Carlos is a bundle of twitching contradic- tions; he’s so wonderfully awkward he makes you want to cry. Carlos’s body only really seems to work for him when he’s pretending to be the smarmy playboy from his soap or his favorite game-show host. Seda in the less flashy role of Ginero is no less solid. His initial slow burn at what he thinks is a crackpot prank dissolves into an effective portrayal of slowly developing panic when he realizes the gravity of his situation.

Better use might have been made of all the television sets scattered around the stage; the few times they were put to use, the eye was irresistibly drawn to them–further attesting to the power of that little screen, where Carlos has discovered “so many lies.”

Jeff Dorchen’s one-man performance piece delivers, as promised, the birth of a Frenchman. Sardin is born of American parents (a neat trick), torn from the womb of his dying mother and brought up to be the guardian of civilization through the dark times–because he is, after all, French. We first see him in whiteface, sitting before a lighted scrim, drinking a glass of water he’s poured from a crystal pitcher in which two goldfish swim. Take your pick of any incomprehensible French film, this image might have been plucked from it.

I can’t pretend to know exactly what Dorchen is aiming at in this piece, but you don’t have to know what a Magritte painting means in order to enjoy it. Birth of a Frenchman is a surreal canvas brought to life by means of a few ingenious pieces of scenery (designed by Dorchen and Brian Wyrick), superb makeup and masks, and Dorchen’s frenetic performance. Whether he’s searching for a lost friend in a glass of water, presiding over a card game in which he’s the only player, or attacking a scarecrow with a pitchfork, Dorchen borders on controlled hysteria without sacrificing technique. Part of the fascination of his performance lies in never knowing what’s going to happen next. “To be French in France is very easy,” Sardin confides to the audience. “It is very hard to be French in the United States.” But it’s fascinating to watch him try.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mel Hill.