HERE'S A LITTLE poem by Pablo Neruda, who lived much of his life in exile.
A Letter Requesting Wood
I lost the rain and the wind
and wonder what I've gained.
Since I lost the green shade
I sometimes sink and die:
it's my heart that isn't happy
and searches beneath my shoes
for things spent or lost.
Perhaps that sad land
moves in me like a ship:
but I changed planets.
The rain no longer knows me.
For those who don't know him either, the late Pablo Neruda was one of the great poets of the century, a political activist, communist, Nobel laureate, diplomat, lover of love, birds, oceans and, most of all, his homeland of Chile. He was also a central figure (played by Philippe Noiret) in the film Il Postino--one of those rare, irresistibly lovable imports which, it seems, everyone loves. Another was the 1966 Czech film Closely Watched Trains, which I suspect Il Postino's creators were inspired by. Both portray a young man with a damaged ego and bruised soul, grown weary of life too early. Both men are poor and bored, too smart for their dumb jobs, aching for a love life. For both, the discovery of romantic love and political dissension delivers a double shot of vitality and, in grand dramatic tradition, a bittersweet ending.
In Burning Patience, a play loosely based on Il Postino, these themes are not nearly as prominent--for better and worse. Written by Chilean Antonio Skármeta, this is a fun play, more lighthearted and lightweight than either film. But the play is easy to appreciate on its own terms. For one, it's set on an island in Chile. Here, Neruda--not the postman--jumps into politics at his own peril. He doesn't blow off his friends after leaving the island. And when Mario records the island's sounds (a bell, the waves, the stars) he does it as a favor to the poet, who is homesick during a long winter in Paris.
Teatro del Pueblo delivers a thoughtful, loving production which, to its credit, doesn't try to evoke the film version. A clever set, composed of a single, pink "stucco" facade (designed by Wendy Rae Waszut-Barrett), works well to frame all sorts of interior and exterior scenes. This set, and most elements of the production--costumes, lighting, music--is simple and elegant, like all good metaphors. The love scene is equally poetic, all the more erotic for the fact that the lovers don't touch, instead using a single flower to suggest their longings (which sounds corny, but isn't). Indeed, as Beatriz's mother rants, metaphors can get you pregnant.
Unfortunately, Rebecca Myers, who plays the mother, is far too young for the role, though she does fairly well anyway. José Carillo, as Neruda, is better able to inhabit his character. He's wry, understated, tossing off perfect insights constantly (the housecat is "the secret police of bedrooms, the sultan of erotic rooftops," he muses). The actors who play the lovers, Alex Podulke and Amy Colón, are close to owning their roles, but not quite there yet. Colón is lovely and charming, but she's more princess than peasant, suggesting none of the physical stress of life as a working-class, Third-World girl living alone with her widowed mother. Podulke, though endearing, is also a bit too polished, and I found his habit of swallowing consonants irritating. The ending, which takes place amidst sirens and revolt, is also less than convincing and rather muddled; I wanted to feel sad and overwhelmed, but couldn't (that's partly because Chile's political upheavals are kept in the background for most of the play).
Still, the ending isn't necessarily the point here: This play, like the film, is mostly about daily life, the pleasures to be found there, and the way that regular use of good poetry, like prayer, can deepen everyday experience. The film was strongest when it focused on that. And when the play hits that note, as it does often, Burning Patience hits me where I live.
Burning Patience runs at Mixed Blood Theatre through June 29; call 224-8806.