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Guinea Pig Solo

by Les Gutman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District

Would ya like a ribbon, soldier? How 'bout a medal or two you can wear while you're our sellin' hot dogs and lemonade? That'd be nice, donchya think? Every second, every day they bleed me of my life, of my wife, of my child, of who I am myself. That which does not kill me makes me wanna kill somebody else. Kill or be killed? Love and be loved. To love and be loved - nothing else - nothing
---José Solo
John Ortiz
J. Ortiz (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Lest any of us have doubts this week about the effects of war, LAByrinth Theater brings us Guinea Pig Solo, Brett Leonard's utterly contemporary urban retelling of Woyzeck. How do we care for our soldiers, so loudly applauded for their time in harm's way, upon their return? What about their families? And for good measure, how do humans react to torture? As in Woyzeck, our "hero," José Solo (John Ortiz), is stretched to the breaking point, and then asked to confront jealousy without cracking. The results are equally tragic.

Solo cobbles together a living by cutting hair and selling hot dogs (the latter short-circuited when he is ticketed for leaving his cart unattended to go to the bathroom, gets into a fight with the police and is fired); he's saving the money to give to his estranged wife, Vivian (Judy Reyes), and son (Alexander Flores): to win them back. (A restraining order is in force presently.) Meanwhile, he can't sleep, and his therapist (Robert Glaudini) is "treating" him via experiments involving sleep deprivation and a lot of time on a treadmill. José has also started spending time with a sympathetic police officer (Richard Petrocelli) who befriended him after his fight with the police.

Two specific days will feature prominently in the rest of the story. At the Puerto Rican Day Parade, Vivian meets a policeman, Charlie (Jason Manuel Olazábal). That night, she goes to a club with him, to which, coincidentally, José's buddy (Stephen Adly Guirgis) has coaxed him to go as well. When he sees Vivian with Charlie, the green-eyed monster surfaces. Fast forward to the blackout, which somehow prompts José to pay Vivian a visit. The rest is history.

Brett Leonard has written a play that features exceptionally well-observed dialogue and a remarkable degree of clarity (which is all the more impressive considering that his source material is awfully murky and that he has the action move forward in an astonishing number of snapshot scenes -- fifty in all!) Notwithstanding, he is develops all of the significant characters quite effectively. If he occasionally lets them ramble on longer than need be, we can forgive him. Less understandable is the inclusion of a character that seems unnecessary: Linda (Kim Director), a docent at the Bronx Zoo who supplies some superfluous animal allegory.

Ian Belton's direction is terrific, utilizing the play's amplitude to great effect. This is most obvious in the sensational performance of Mr. Ortiz, in which he displays not only emotional and physical prowess but tremendous credibility as well. The remainder of the cast is also excellent. I was particularly impressed by Petrocelli's cop (endearing, palpably real and a good candidate for a role model for training Raymond Kelly's soldiers). Curiously, the stage includes two of LAByrinth's playwrights, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Robert Glaudini, both of whom fare very well as actors. Young Alexander Flores also gives a notable performance as the son, who has stopped talking -- communicating much with a bouncing ball and grim face.

Andromache Chalfont's set is largely urban/industrial in design, including a raised tier that's put to good use, as are a group of screens on casters that are moved about as scenes shift. Paul Whitaker's lighting adds to the effect, as does Fitz Patton's bombastic sound design. Kaye Voyce's costumes are on target.

LAByrinth is to be commended for this production, which complements its frequent examinations of urban life with enormous currency.

Guinea Pig Solo
by Brett C. Leonard
Directed by Ian Belton
with John Ortiz, Kim Director, Alexander Flores, Robert Glaudini, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Jason Manuel Olazábal, Richard Petrocelli, Portia and Judy Reyes
Set Design: Andromache Chalfant
Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of LAByrinth Theater Company
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (@Astor Place)
Telephone (212) 239-6200
TUES - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2; $45
Opening May 9, 2004, closes June 6, 2004
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 5/8/04 performance
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