theater (reviews)

review: raft of the medusa

Raft of the Medusa

by Joe Pintauro
Directed by Francisco Solorzano
Featuring Jeremy Brena, John Gazzale
Barefoot Theatre Company at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre 38 Commerce Street
October 8, 2011 — October 22, 2011
company web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September October 8, 2011

Most of the cast including therapy group leader Dr. Jerry (Gil Ron) center. Image by Michael Mallard.

Raft of the Medusa produced by Barefoot Theatre Company at the Cherry Lane Studio is a revision of a 1991 ensemble piece from the early years of the AIDS epidemic that gives dramatic voice to the broadest array of those infected and in the process may lose track of part of its theatrical heartbeat.

We meet Donald (John Gazzale) in his final hallucinating moments dying of the disease and in the course of the play through flashbacks.  We meet Michael (Jeremy Brena) as Donald’s once love now friend and end-of-life partner who moves into the real-time therapy session that defines the balance of the play to process his life and Donald’s life that has just ended.   We meet therapist Jerry (Gil Ron) in a flashback treating Donald and as the convener of the dramatic conceit — a therapy group of people living with AIDS in 1988.  Through this decision the playwright expands the cast to encompass the multiple faces of AIDS.  Politics through cast size. Among the attributes of these characters we find: heterosexual women and men, a club boy, at least one intravenous drug user, a homeless woman, and men exploring their sexuality in the late 1970s/early 1980s club scene.  Dramatically we find ourselves in a familiar theatrical context: people trapped or willfully placing themselves in a room to work through issues in theatre time as real time.  Think Twelve Angry Men‘s jury room.  Trauma, intensity, telescoped events, a death that haunts the group and deaths that linger at the edges of the playing area.

Characters yell at each other, reveal their fears and homophobia and traumas and judgment.  Jeremy Brena’s portrayal of Michael’s journey through anger and acceptance of his own situation up to the door of  forgiveness of Donald (who probably was the person who gave the virus to him) is nuanced and exquisite.  John Gazzale gives us a harrowing death and a sweet angel of life who attempts to cajole Michael to forgive and be in his own life. A serious weakness in the portrayal of the therapist is that he never has control of his group — groups like these often have “rules of engagement” such as respecting those speaking and maintaining a certain level of decorum, not present in this group (e.g. smirking, side talking).  Gil Ron’s Dr. Jerry often fades to the background in an unbelievable way that pulls focus from the reality of the setting while it does allow characters to spout off at one another.

Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericaut, 1819, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Playwright Joe Pintauro draws inspiration, he tells us (in playbill notes and dramaturgical materials), from Theodore Gericault‘s 1812 painting of survivors and victims of a real shipwreck.  The play-title-inspiring raft holding dead and dying human bodies was evoked, archived reviews tell me, in moments of the original New York production’s staging.  No such calls backs, explicit or implicit, are made in the present production.  The sense to make of this title’s symbolism and this historical play crafted in the early years of an epidemic remain murky.  We do have sequences of piles of angry physical fighting characters on the stage — choices of director Francisco Solorzano.  We have some subtle and fleshed out stories upon which we could focus (Donald and Michael and Dr. Jerry).  We have a particular era’s lack of understanding of the nature of the disease and medical resources (drugs, treatments, life-enhancing regimens).  And we have the political agenda to illustrate the many faces of a dastardly disease.

History on stage.  With respect — another version of a passion play.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 11, 2011)

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