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A CurtainUp Review
Dramatis Personae

By Lina Zeldovich

I think all plays have to breathe. . . Humor is the best release, it allows for the play to breathe normally, it makes it more alive.
— Gonzalo Rodrigues Risco in response to being asked how he managed to weave so much humor into the dreadful events of his teenage years. He also explains that he wrote Dramatis Personae, because while he lived three blocks away from the Japanese embassy, he was busy writing his own play and paid more attention to his characters than the events outside and consequently came to feel it was his responsibility, as an artist to write about the siege.
A historical tractate or a week-long trip to Peru wouldn't educate you more about the country, the culture and its history than Dramatis Personae, a play by Peru-born playwright, Gonzalo Rodrigues Risco. Peru's political instability of the nineties fueled by the president Alberto Fujimori's dissolution of the allegedly corrupted judicial system exacerbated the country's existing political instability and fueled the terrorist movement.

Based on his teenage memories and impressions of the 1992 Tarata bombing, carried out by the Shining Path guerilla group, and the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis that lasted 126 days, Risco reconstructs and re-imagines the events, the atmosphere and the human spirit of those turbulent times, managing to impress his audience with the authenticity, the unexpected intellectual pursuits and, remarkably, humor.

From the jarred glass of the shuttered window of his apartment, Lucas (Felix Solis), Peru's prominent literary figure and an author of a best-selling novel, watches the Japanese embassy where a group of people have been taken hostage by a terrorist clique, demanding freedom for political prisoners. Ben (Gerardo Rodriguez) and Marla (Lisa Fernandez), both aspiring scribes still at the early stages of their creative career, join him in their evening conversations, forming a writers' group. They also help him rid his apartment of the remains of broken glass, and dust off the soot and grit the explosion left behind. In the subsequent days and weeks of the embassy siege, they periodically end up being de-facto hostages in Lucas' apartment due to strict night time curfews and sporadic shooting and explosions.

The odious circumstances don't seem to stanch their writing creativity. On the contrary, the situation seems to fuel their imagination. It is the little pesky side-effects of the situation that inconvience them periodically. "Fucking blackouts," Ben shouts discovering the refrigerator had turned back on only a while ago. Lucas shrugs off Maria's "Shouldn't you fix the window?" with "Not until it's over."

The apartment with the charred windowpane become these people's think tank where they construct their characters and construe their plots, under the accompaniment of sporadic gunfire and occasional blowups. Marla nurses a story about a woman whose marriage is so empty, her only escape is to kill her husband. Ben is a generator of strange ideas ("When I die, I want to be cremated and stored in an unmarked container besides coffee. So that sometimes people get confused and . . . Drink a little bit of me").

Lucas is haunted by a real ghost of his past — his dead younger brother, Marc (Bobby Moreno). As the story unfolds, we learn that Marc was a character in Lucas's bestseller in which he survives an explosion, only to get sick and die at the end. Marc visits Lucas perhaps more often than the imaginary characters visit Marla and Ben — he even hangs out and talks which prompts Lucas to ask "How many times do I have to kill him?" But Marc keeps entering Lucas's world as he pleases. He reads books, eats popcorn and challenges Lucas on every level, sometimes driving him insane, sometimes leaving him deeply depressed.

The real-life scenes are cleverly interwoven with the passages featuring the writers' imaginary dramatis personae; the light and sound effects achieve that instant and harmonious transformation seamlessly, transferring us back and forth from the violent reality to the inner worlds of the writers' imagination, which could be just as violent, if not more. Similarly, the sharp light and sound effects deliver the atmosphere of uncertainty and almost palpable anxiety of not knowing what may blow up or erupt into a shooting cannonade the next moment. When Lucas stands close to his shuttered window, we fear for him. When an explosion wipes out the lights, we are not sure how many characters, imaginary or real, are left to carry on. Yet, people continue on with their lives.

The complexity of the characters — the writers trio as well as their imaginary counterparts— is not easy to portray, but the the actors do so impressively. It's impossible to identify a single best actor. This cast's interaction, speech and movements were so precise and symbiotic, the ensemble is bound together as a holistic whole— a definite attribute of Eric Pearson's well-directed production by Eric Pearson, which, surprisingly, manages to draw quite a few laughs from the many tensions.

Dramatis Personae
Written by Gonzalo Rodriguez Risco
Directed by Eric Pearson
Cast: Felix Solis (Lucas), Gerardo Rodriguez (Ben), Liza Fernandez (Marla). Bobby Moreno(Squiggles/Anton/Marc), Laura Esposito Woman/Prostitute/Wife
Scenic Designer: Michael Locher
Costumes: Amy Clark
Sound: Nathan A. Roberts
Lighting: Burke Brown
Stage Manager: Joanne E. McInerney
Cherry Lane Studio Theater 38 Commerce Street New York. (212) 989-2020
From 10/1/10; opening 10/07/10 closing 10/23/10.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 7:00pm and Wed 10/13/10 @ 3pm
Reviewed by Lina Zeldovich based on Oct 6 press performance.
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