Sam Shepard is not an “easy” playwright, and La Turista is certainly not his most accessible play. Indeed, with its sudden jumps in time and location, its lack of a traditional storyline, its bizarre cast of characters and its even more bizarre plot twists, La Turista can be a rather difficult play for an audience to stomach. Unfortunately, the current Cap and Bells-sponsored production of La Turista, directed by Kian Bergstrom ’98, does little to make that experience any easier.
A whole host of problems, not the least of which is the complexity and strangeness of the script, beset this theatrical effort. To begin with, the physical elements of the production have a ramshackle, thrown-together feel. The set, meant to resemble a cheap hotel room, consists of flats draped throughout the first act in a thin, lime-green cloth (presumably intended to suggest wallpaper).
Unfortunately, the removal of this cloth in the second act, while it improves the appearance of the flats, reveals sizable gaps at the junction allowing the audience glimpses of backstage. Nor was the set well integrated into its surroundings in Currier ballroom. Some of this incongruence was perhaps unavoidable: the shabbiness of the set is certainly not made any less noticeable in contrast to the opulence of the ballroom furnishings, but this does not explain why the ballroom’s ornate tables were left shoved up against the edges of the makeshift stage, or why a fire extinguisher and a mop and bucket were left standing at the front room in full view of the audience.
La Turista is not a show demanding a complicated or particularly beautiful set, but the scenery for this production was so half-heartedly designed that it detracted from the performance itself.
Of course, this is a student production with limited resources, both financially and artistically, so these lapses in appearance might be considered petty and easily forgiven. However, what is unforgivable is the weakness of the dramatic interpretation and presentation of this production.
The play, as mentioned before, is an odd one. Its plot revolves around an American couple (John Melesky ’99 and Annaliis Abrego ’01) on vacation in Mexico when the Melesky (Abrego’s husband, brother, or male friendâ€”their relationship is unclear) falls prey to amoebic dysentery: “la turista.”
In the midst of his sufferings, an intruder, a vagrant boy (Wayne Wight ’00), bursts into their hotel room, disconnects their telephone, mocks their stereotyped conceptions of Mexican village life and crawls into the man’s bed. The arrival of the boy is followed by that of the local witch doctor, played by Rob Seitelman ’01, who is clad in flowing black cloth and, inexplicably, a red turtleneck; he also carries two frighteningly realistic fake chickens. The witch doctor, with the help of his eldest son (Matt Shafeek ’01), proceeds to subject the miserably ill American man to a variety of unpleasant rituals culminating in the bloody sacrifice of the chickens over his prostrate body.
In the second act we find ourselves back in the States, in yet another shabby motel room with the same couple. It is unclear whether this scene occurs after the trip to Mexico, before the trip or exists simply as a disconnected alternate reality with no relation to the first act. At any rate, the “husband” is still sick, this time with a sleeping sickness that renders him incapable of sustained activity. Seitelman returns, this time as a strangely malignant country doctor with a short temper and a habit of napping on the job. The scene culminates in a face-off between the doctor and his revived patient in which guns are pulled, shots are fired and sanity disappears. It is an odd show.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Bergstrom and his actors seem as bewildered by the play as their audience, and what could have been a wacky and bizarrely funny comedy becomes simply bizarre and not all that interesting. The actors, Melesky and Seitelman in particular, do their best, and they occasionally catch hold of the loopy farce that drives the show. However, most of the time they take refuge in the strangeness of it all, yelling and gesticulating wildly but failing to engender any emotional response beyond annoyance in their audience.
In the climactic final scene this shouting and posturing comes at the audience from both sides as Melesky and Seitelman carry on five-minute, top-of-their-lungs, simultaneous rants that must exhaust the audience as much as it must exhaust the actors themselves. Abrego is utterly at sea in the role of the woman, speaking her lines in a barely intelligible monotone and stumbling through her rambling speeches. Wight brings ample energy to his roles in both acts, but he does not seem to have a clear idea of what his characters are doing on stage; he also had occasional trouble remembering lines and staying in character.
In general, the greatest problem with the actors’ performances (and with the show as a whole) is a lack of adequate direction. The actors seem lost, both on-stage and in their lines. The blocking gave the impression of being extemporaneous; the actors simply moved as they felt necessary. This resulted in a lot of pacing, back and forth, back and forthâ€”I counted 17 laps across the front of the stage for one particularly long monologue.
At times the blocking was downright intrusive,as in the case when Wight dragged Melesky’s body noisily across the front of the stage right in front of a conversation between two other actors, rendering their dialogue incomprehensible. The lack of direction was clearly intellectual as well as physical; it did not seem that the director had made any decisions about why all of these bizarre things were happening nor why these strange things were being said. He merely presented them to us on a platter, a smorgasbord of insanity.
If such decisions about interpretation or motivation had been made, they were not conveyed to the actors in a way that allowed them to make sense of their own performances. When, in the middle of the second act, Seitelman’s mad doctor character proclaimed, “I just want to finish this job and go home!” the desperation in Seitelman’s voice rang all too true.
The lighting for the show was adequate, keeping the actors visible, but at times was a bit heavy-handed; dramatic shifts in the plot are signaled by equally dramatic changes in the brightness of the set.
A similar complaint could be made about the background music. Although it was pleasant and appropriate at the start of each act, its abrupt insertion under a meandering reminiscent monologue by one of the characters was contrived and too obviously an attempt to create “atmosphere.” Plus, whatever atmosphere was created was promptly dispelled by the jarringly loud click of the tape recorder shutting off at the end of the monologue.
As a necessary footnote to this critical response, it should be noted that Bergstrom shouldered the burden of creating this production almost entirely alone.
The entire performance, from set construction to the printing of the programs was his work. Any effort to bring a work of theatrical writing to life is difficult and risky, and Bergstrom and his actors are to be commended for their effort and their creativity.
Perhaps more assistance from other students or the Cap and Bells board in the matters of design and execution would have allowed Bergstrom to focus more deeply on the most glaring flaws of the production, namely the interpretation and direction of the show.
Unfortunately, the current production leaves its audience bewildered, unenlightened and worst of all, bored.