South Coast Repertory
Costa Mesa, California
Christine Avila: Sonsita
Michael Cerveris: Nestor
Joan Stuart-Morris: Inez
George Ede: Julio
Julian Gamble: President
David Hayward: Michael
Karen Landry: Sister Ann
By Milcha Sanchez-Scott.
Directed by Peter C. Brosius.
Sets Loy Arcenas.
Costumes Lydia Tanji.
Lights Peter Maradudin.
Music and sound Michael Roth.
Percussion John Fitzgerald.
Choreography and fight staging Gary Mascaro.
Dramaturg Jerry Patch.
Production manager Edward Lapine.
Stage manager Julie Haber.
'El Dorado' at SCR: Abstract Spectacle
Monday, April 22, 1991
By Don Shirley
Just in time for Earth Day, the Earth takes its revenge, in "El Dorado," at South Coast Repertory. A river rises up to protest the attempt by a South American dictator and his norteamericano architect to channel it. Or so we're told. We don't actually see the Rio Negro in Milcha Sanchez-Scott's play--instead, we see a lot of actors making fancy speeches.
Granted, it would be difficult to put a flooding river--or the jungle that's being cleared to make room for El Dorado's gleaming new capital--on stage. Perhaps recognizing the futility of being literal, the creators of "El Dorado" have gone abstract in the extreme.
Loy Arcenas' set suggests the modern architecture of the new city. But we don't see many of the trees, let alone the forest, until the final scene, when a single shaft of green light represents an entire watershed--or even all of nature. Sanchez-Scott's characters are largely abstractions too--symbols and stereotypes. In Sanchez-Scott's earlier play "Roosters," her lyrical gifts transmuted the stereotypes into archetypes fairly well. That doesn't happen here. Beastly, shallow President Bustamante (Julian Gamble) has married into El Dorado's ruling clan, the Mejias. He probably keeps his job only because the people love his glamorous wife, Inez (Joan Stuart-Morris). In one scene, we hear the multitudes chanting Inez's name, followed by a supposedly heartbreaking speech by Inez from her balcony. It's too bad she doesn't sing "Don't Cry for Me, El Dorado." But
this is no musical, and "El Dorado" isn't about Inez as much as it's about her two tiresome children.
From her first marriage to an Indian politician, there is a troubled young man named Nestor (Michael Cerveris)--the play's least
predictable but also least credible character. Half the time, he dresses all the way down to an aboriginal look, speaks incantations and rails about the doom in store for his country. The rest of the time, he dresses up for his role as a torturer for his stepfather; he has even earned the nickname "The Butcher." He puts the screws to a nun from Wisconsin (Karen Landry) who has been accused of planting a bomb, then he decides to run away with her into the jungle. His split personality is no secret, and it's hard to believe his stepfather continues to employ him as his henchman.
Inez's other offspring, a daughter by Bustamante, is innocent Sonsita (Christine Avila), who has just returned from convent school in Britain only to learn that she is regarded as marital fodder for a greasy politician. Sonsita and actress Avila--who appears a bit too mature for a convent girl--are trapped by the writer's butterfly imagery as much as by her parents' matrimonial plans. She counts butterflies, strokes them, wails over them when they're missing, and finally envisions herself as one. It would probably work better on the page than on the stage, where you keep squinting in an effort to see if the little critters are actually there. The other characters display few signs of independent life, and director Peter Brosius' cast isn't much help. True, it's notable that Julio, the presidential palace factotum, is played by George Ede, who seems to have wandered in from a British tour group. But this seems to be a casting mistake rather than a commentary on the character. Or take David Hayward, who plays the American architect. The character is apparently supposed to project a great charisma; Inez and Sonsita are attracted to him, and he represents Western faith in the technocratic future. But Hayward just doesn't have that kind of magnetism. As a result, Sanchez-Scott's already lopsided arguments lean even farther away from the architect's point of view.
The play is loaded to make political points, all of which add up to nothing very profound: Don't mess with Mother Nature, and watch out for dictators who kill nuns. It's curious that Sanchez-Scott doesn't overtly mention global warming, which may be the most long-lasting result of Amazonian deforestation. Maybe she thought it would make the play too obvious.
Yet "El Dorado," despite atmospheric intimations of mystery (lighting, Peter Maradudin; sound, Michael Roth) is already too obvious. It lacks the skillful characterizations and the startling visual imagery that might transform it into the spiritual experience that's apparently intended.