Work In Progress
Western Stage's adaptation of Viva Zapata! is on track but still needs work.
Thursday, October 19, 2000
In choosing John Steinbeck''s screenplay for Viva Zapata! as the basis for a stage adaptation, Harvey Landa made a hard choice. First, he was risking comparison with a great film: The black-and-white drama was directed by Elia Kazan in 1952, and starred Marlon Brando (who was nominated for an Academy Award) in the title role and Anthony Quinn (who won a supporting-actor Oscar) as Zapata''s brother. Then, too, Landa was buying into the screenplay''s weaknesses--an almost lugubrious tone and a tendency toward wordiness.
But where the film could overcome its flaws by changing scenery, taking the audience from village street to presidential palace to battle scenes (with full armies, horses and gunfire) in the blink of an eye, Landa was left with little more than Steinbeck''s words. The fact that so many of those words are wonderful must have added another complication to the adaptation: How do you cut the words of a master? Regardless of how difficult that task might be, however, that''s exactly what this script needs. While the movie version of Viva Zapata! runs just under an hour and 55 minutes, Landa''s stage version is nearly an hour longer, weighing in at two hours and 50 minutes (including intermission).
Somewhere, somehow, to make this show more dynamic, at least half an hour needs to be cut from its running time. Not all of that time necessarily needs to come from the script and this is where director Lorenzo Aragon can help. The pacing of last Saturday''s show was tortoise-like, at best. In some cases, the pace was affected by slow cue pick-up between actors; in other scenes, actors milked scenes for every drop of drama they could find (the final scene between Zapata and his wife, Josefa, is a prime example). In yet other cases, scene changes seemed to take too long--particularly given the simplicity of the two-curtain, minimal-set-piece set.
Adding another burden of time, there is an unnecessary--and even distracting--prologue spoken by a curandera (Maria-Elena Cordero), a sort of medicine woman, who calls up the action of the play. Whether the action introduced by the curandera is in the past, present or future tense is unclear, but her presence at the beginning of the show seems to foreshadow some degree of magical realism. But the script never follows through on that promise and, despite the curandera''s mute appearance in several scenes, she''s an entirely unnecessary device.
In the title role, Geoffrey Rivas'' Emiliano Zapata lacks just a little bit of...something. Charisma maybe? He''s got the brooding, intense thing down pat. But somehow there needs to be another spark, something that illuminates the idealism and the man behind the angry eyes, something that explains why thousands of peasants joined him in his fight against a repressive government, something that explains why Zapata is still an icon used by indigenous people fighting for their rights in Mexico and Central America.
More successful in displaying the human side of his character is Cain M. Camargo, as Eufemio Zapata, Emiliano''s brother. But in this case, perhaps, the humanization goes a bit too far: We see little beyond a hard-drinking, woman-chasing young man, even though he''s fought alongside his brother from the get-go. And that, ultimately, diminishes Eufemio''s payoff scene, where he tells his brother that enough is enough.
Any first production of an original script is basically a test to find the things that work, the things that don''t and the things that need to be amplified. In that regard, Viva Zapata! is right on track. There''s plenty of meat to work with; it just remains for playwright and director to carve and serve it in a such a way as to enhance its inherently rich flavor.
Viva Zapata! plays on the Main Stage at Hartnell College through Oct. 29.