Monday, April 18, 2011

Devil’s Advocate by Donald Freed

By Joe Straw

He, who knows all, knows best.  – Joe Straw

These days, they just come for you, they don’t ask permission.  Why should they?  To them it seems you’ve crossed the line. Even though they’ve supported you in the past. It’s over. Their weapons are state of the art, paid for by borrowed money, and legislated by foolish men. You’re a devil, a demon, and it’s time for your 1:00 a.m. Exorcism.

I will never betray your asylum.” – The Archbishop

The General (Robert Beltran) is in fact, Manuel Noriega.  His savior, The Archbishop, Jose Sebastian Laboa Gallego (Tom Fitzpatrick) is also his partner in crime in the intriguing Devil’s Advocate written by Donald Freed, directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela, and presented by the Latino Theatre Company and the California International Theatre Festival on Spring Street in Los Angeles.

In the play the head of Jesus, in a forgiving red light, looks down on a simple man.  The Archbishop kneels before Jesus, prays silently, pleading for the knowledge and the strength because the general will come this way on this particular night.  He has to come.  He’s got nowhere to go.

And so he kneels, underneath the crucifixion, the Archbishop says a prayer, in Latin, in his street clothes while listening to the helicopters flying overhead, blaring slogans, while others shoot civilians throughout the Panamanian city.  

“Noriega is worst than Hitler and Stalin.” – A pre-recorded speech blaring from a loud speaker from a US helicopter

(Also, if it’s gunfire outside your sanctuary, it must be the US government.) 

Lurking beyond the window is a lone figure with what appears to be a weapon.  It is the general and he has a machinegun in hand. Avoiding the helicopters and military, he comes to the Archbishop for protection and sanctuary.  But, he doesn’t come in as a general; he sneaks inside the Archbishop’s room in civilian clothing. 

Is it a slight knock or a scratch at the door?

Noriega’s clothes are wet, either from the tropical rain or drenched with sweat, running for his life. In any case, The Archbishop waves him in, offers him a meager dinner, and one stinking beer. 

The General is in no mood to give himself freely to the Americans and will fight to his death to keep the country he has come to enjoy, love and dictate.  But if he’s going down, he’s taking that Basque "patriot" with him.  Although it is unclear what information Noriega has on The Archbishop.

“We are going to die, you and me.” – The General

Noriega excuses himself to use the Archbishop’s bathroom. The Archbishop puts on his robe while The General removes his clothes and puts on a bathrobe. (All nice and cozy and equals of sorts.)

Later, after another trip to the bathroom, Noreiga satisfies his thirst with his own bodily fluids.  (And if that isn’t bad enough, he drinks it from a dirty glass!) 

As the Archbishop raises his lantern and signals someone on the outside, it is a fact that Noriega’s capture has already been planned as one will see during the course of the play. The Archbishop’s objective is to have the General surrender peacefully but first (backed by an unknown force) he must convince Noriega to give up serenely.  (So much for “ I will never betray your asylum.”) 

So just who is the Devil in The Devil’s Advocate?  Is it the Archbishop, The General, or the United States?

“They bombed the barrio, 10,000 homes are destroyed.” – Noriega

Simply put, the play is about a man trying to hold on to power.  Frighten by the thoughts of losing everything he seeks sanctuary to find a solution.  So he finds a quiet place, the only place he has left to think while he negotiates his way out of the inevitable incarceration. 

There is not a defining moment in this play where the Archbishop convinces Noriega to give up “his throne” and surrender to the Americans, or a defining moment when Noriega decides to surrender. One looks for the defining moment when the relationship significantly changes.  It is a moment that makes a lasting impression.  If there is a moment, it is subtle, possibly too subtle.

Beltran, as Noriega does an outstanding job.  He is a consummate professional and able to climb into many roles easily as witnessed in various productions at Latino Theatre Company.  Beltran is possibly too good looking to play the pock marked Noriega.  But as a general, missing was the way a general carries himself even when burdened by huge obstacles.  His march and his command of the space even when he has lost that space might be a consideration as an element to an already fine performance.  Also, did Beltran fight hard for his release?  Were his choices imaginative and precise?  Maybe yes, and maybe no.

Fitzpatrick, The Archbishop, was equally good especially with only 10 days of rehearsals.  One might say it was a fantastic job.  But missing was the depth of the character, the moments that make the whole performance, the victories and defeats.  Registration.  Moments that change the relationship.    If his objective is to have Noriega surrender, the conflict should include danger, surprise, and loss.  One never got the feeling The Archbishop lost any ground.  And there should be ground lost if the conflict in his life is elevated and seemingly insurmountable.

Jose Luis Valenzuela does a remarkable job keeping the action going.  There are obstacles with having 10 days with the actor, but Valenzuela pulls it all together to give us a very intriguing view of a very interesting situation.  Possibly more rehearsal time would give more details about the goods Noriega has about his “Basque” friend and the information which will be used in a manner to discredit him. 

Donald Freed’s play was enjoyable from start to finish.  His dialogue into Noriega’s personal hygiene and proclivities must have a basis in truth.  How he got access to those files will probably remain a best-kept secret. There is so much truth on stage one feel uncomfortable as to who may be watching you watching this play.   But, as for the play, what are we to make of this?  Freed’s play tells us our government is nefarious.  Nothing-new here.  We’ve read all this in the paper and in various reports. We know Noriega worked for the CIA.  We also know whatever truth there may be is in a file marked “classified” not to be released or examined until all that should be held accountable are dead.  So what is its purpose?  That no one is totally innocent or totally guilty?  Stop supporting dictators with our tax dollars? Do well and be rewarded ten fold?  One is not really sure. 

Francois-Pierre Couture did a marvelous job as the Scenic Designer.  The set was absolutely fantastic! Tesshi Nakagawa did a wonderful job with costume and props.   

It’s too easy to look at this significant piece of work and laugh at what our government is up to.   How we give “just names” to what amounts to sending in troops and taking over a country.  Look at President George H.W. Bush speech on Operation Just Cause on YouTube and judge for yourself. According to President George H.W. Bush, Noriega is out of control and therefore Bush proclaims December 20, 1989 as “Operation Just Cause”.  (That’s the way you do it! If you’re going to invade a country, give it a short and worthy name, not “Operation Get that Pock Marked Latin Bastard Out of Panama Cause.”)

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