While it's hard to fault the general platform of the egalitarian left--anti-exploitation, pro-worker, anti-fat cat--it's always hard to separate the movement from the specter of forced collectivization and of being coerced into dressing frumpily. No worries on the latter account for the Trece Lunas Arts Collective, who in their new scattershot production give us natty turn-of-the-(previous)-century suits, half-naked servants to a hysterical castrato, and a man, dancing in skimpy drag, who looks fit to play small forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Revolution Cirkus: The Life and Times of Luis Emilio Recabarren bills itself as an "anti-epic," and with apt ambiguity. The production takes on the scope of a genre-straddling, era-melding epic, but without reliance on conventional narrative, character development, or, at times, coherence. It's simply all over the place, with results alternately bad and good.
Recabarren was a union organizer in Chile. While not a household name, he was renowned enough to show up in the writing of Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. Instead of introducing him right away in Act 1, though, the play opens with an obvious farce featuring a human puppet named "Push" (why not "Putsch," one wonders) who advocates corporate greed, environmental rapaciousness, and war without end. Hmmm. There isn't much original thinking here, though matters improve when Sherine Crooms launches into a song about crucified workers set to the tune of "Mack the Knife." More on Crooms later.
Before the end of Act 1, we've careened wildly between musical numbers, dance pieces, and satirical skits. This ambitious stew is largely the baby of Emiliano Silva, who wrote and directed it, plays guitar in the band, and portrays Recabarren. It's a broad, shouty, and frequently heavy-handed work in which the aforementioned castrato is stabbed in the back for wishing to sing to the poor, Dubya time-travels to share advice on stealing elections and quelling popular uprisings, and a madwoman shows up now and then to dole out helpings of apocalyptic lunacy. A high point is Shad Cooper's shirtless, muscle-flexing, Latin-wrestling-mask-wearing, aggro soliloquy--which, most appropriately, comes and goes apparently apropos of nothing.
Silva presumably did not, in other words, set out to emulate Tennessee Williams. Instead, he has attempted to capture the giddy spirit of revolution and the creative possibilities that come from smashing inner and outer strictures and conventions. He and the Trece Lunas players sporadically capture this elusive sense of freedom. It's a high-energy show, with often ebullient choreography by Paulino Brener and tight and varied musical accompaniment by the Pachamama Band--ably led by multi-instrumentalist Cherolyn Fisher. And while the script affords next to no opportunity for the actors to develop three-dimensional characters, the charismatic Crooms sensibly goes right over the top as a memorable cyanide matriarch, tongue-lolling and palsied, leering as she gives the order to gun down women and children.
The price for these avant-garde aspirations begins to be felt in Act 2, when it becomes apparent that the piece's disparate threads are to be bound together solely by imagination and metaphor, to the exclusion of narrative--it's a risky strategy that the production can hold together for only so long. Brener's turn as a singing, dancing drag queen salvages things a bit, as does his giggling castrato in Act 1, but the play's lack of focus begins to turn pleasant disorientation into tedium.
Then, oddly, toward the end things snap into focus. Recabarren (remember him?) begins addressing the audience, with Silva pulling off bighearted monologues. A touching and well-written scene follows in which Recabarren organizes a workers' theater to politicize and raise spirits. Silva has a likeable character actor's face and an earnest mien onstage, and he inhabits Recabarren long enough to show friction between his domestic life and his dedication to the proletariat (lightened by Sara Richardson's hilarious slapstick birthing scene), an indication of what might have been if the production had actually delivered on the promise of its subtitle rather than taking shots at Dubya. Well, revolutions tend to be messy.