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School of the Americas
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School of the Americas
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Photo by Michal Daniel
John Ortiz & Patricia Velasquez
in School of the Americas.
The bitter end of Ernesto "Che" Guevara's revolutionary career, in a decrepit schoolhouse in the Bolivian jungle in 1967, is a singularly unforgiving vantage point from which to view his extraordinary, earth-shaking life. It was here that the fearless Argentine guerrilla comandante, who had helped free Cuba from decades of U.S. domination (only to see it sucked inexorably into the Soviet orbit), stumbled fatally in his quixotic crusade to jump-start a pan-American revolution against neocolonialism.

"I made so many goddamn mistakes on this campaign—it's like I wanted them to capture me," says Che (John Ortiz) to a solicitous young schoolteacher (Patricia Velasquez) late in School of the Americas, José Rivera's competent, circumspect, ultimately unsatisfying new play about Guevara's final days, now at the Public Theater in a co-production with LAByrinth Theater Company. "I'm a small, failed, stupid man…a goddamn joke!"

That's about as scathing as Rivera allows his otherwise admiring portrait of Che in extremis to get. A sneering CIA operative, the anti-Castro Cuban Ramos (Felix Solis), is on hand to express the pro forma views of Che as executioner and figurative rapist of his homeland. And Ortiz's rangy, grittily magnetic performance occasionally suggests a hint of the rage-blinded bloodlust that lurked behind Che's messianic righteousness.

But School of the Americas comes to praise, not to bury this Latin American Brutus; offering neither a bracing revisionist corrective to the T-shirt-wearing "cult of Che" nor a particularly stirring call to arms for the faithful, Rivera's play mostly burnishes the legend. Even the indignity of Che's final quarters—the bare, dusty schoolroom evoked with rough-edged acuity by scenic designer Andromache Chalfant—acquires the distinct glow of a martyr's manger. The play subtly exalts Che's selfless struggle unto the end rather than counting its squalor as abject defeat.

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It doesn't help that the play's interlocutor, Julia, is a naïve, mildly feisty spinster schoolteacher in whose classroom the captured, wounded Che is being stored like so much roadkill (cue a prescient reference to the depredations of Guantanamo Bay). Her innocent fascination and barely concealed empathy both irritate and endear Che, in a back-and-forth dialectic that, though well-shaped by Rivera and sensitively directed by Mark Wing-Davey, follows a predictable arc from mutual skepticism and misunderstanding to warm respect and inspiration. Che may not always say what she would have him say, but now and then he'll say something wonderful.

©2006 Photo by Michal Daniel
Patricia Velasquez & Karina Arroyave
in School of the Americas.
These familiar dance steps have little spring left in them, even if they get a prickly, sometimes frisky run-through here. And they only accentuate the play's central imbalance: It holds our interest in direct proportion to our interest in the embattled Che, but whenever Rivera focuses on Julia's more quotidian battles—with the ignorance of villagers or with her sickly, authoritarian sister (Karina Arroyave)—the play noticeably loses steam.

It's also reductive, not to mention cleverly sanitizing, to redirect Che's call to armed struggle into the revivification of a single reluctant teacher. As their time together nears its end, Che tries to rouse Julia's spirits by hailing the "heroism" of her profession, "no less profound and necessary than a soldier's." While it's hard to believe the firebrand Che would say this—though highly educated himself, his abiding faith was in guns, not butter—it's also a revealing moment of wish fulfillment, telling the latter-day left-leaners and would-be fellow travelers who are the prime audience for School of the Americas: We can honor Che's legacy today by making change right now, in our own small, peaceable ways. Even in staging, or watching, a play.

Offsetting this do-gooder pall somewhat are the sharp, even harsh contrasts of the design and direction. Chalfant's sets and David Weiner's lights give the exteriors a sun-bleached starkness, while the schoolhouse scenes have a dank, almost feverish intimacy. Ortiz's Che, haggard and wheezing with asthma, delivers his lines with sweaty difficulty and mounting urgency, though Velasquez never quite shakes her character's stiffness.

Chalfant's set changes one last time, for a final schoolhouse epilogue with Ramos and Julia that has a fittingly churchlike, candlelit ambience. Perhaps in more ways than it intends, School of the Americas is a gently heartsick eulogy for the long-languishing promise of revolution.

School of the Americas
By José Rivera
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey
Public Theater

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 7/6/2006 12:03:00 PM


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