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On Stage: cartoon characters in a drama of death



On March 24, 1980, in San Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Amulfo Romero was assassinated while saying mass. The next day in Chicago, Mundelein College professor and playwright Nick Patricca read about it. It was the first he'd heard of Romero. And the news did something to him.

"In the lower left-hand corner of the newspaper was a picture of this man," Patricca remembers. "This archbishop was assassinated, and I looked in his eyes. That was it. I believed in my heart I knew who this person was."

From the photograph, he says, he understood Romero's transformation. At the time of Romero's appointment to archbishop in 1977, he was a conservative, timid clergyman. But after he began to understand the conditions in his country, and especially after the death of Rutilio Grande, a priest who preached nonviolence, Romero became a leader who defied the government and military and supported the violent struggle of the peasants and unions.

Patricca sensed all this just from a black-and-white picture? Yes. He is emphatic: "I knew who he was."

Without further research, Patricca wrote a draft of a play. Later he added a chorus of gods chosen from Mayan myths and reshaped the work along the lines of Near East tomb plays and medieval mystery plays. The final result, entitled The Fifth Sun, is playing Thursdays through Sundays through June 26, at Latino Chicago's converted firehouse at 1625 N. Damen. In July the cast will take the play to San Antonio for the international TENAZ Festival of Chicano/Latino Theater.

The Fifth Sun premiered at Victory Gardens Theatre in 1984 and has been performed by about 20 theater groups--mostly student and community productions--in this country and Canada. Latino Chicago is the first all-Hispanic troupe to do the play (they will perform it in English), and the first to do it in a distinctly Latin American guerrilla-streettheater carpa (tent) style, which they discovered at previous TENAZ festivals. The style originated in Mexico in the early 1900s, says Latino Chicago's artistic director Juan Ramirez, and became popular in the 60s among migrant workers. Its hallmarks are the use of movable set pieces and the "cartooning" of characters, whose movements and manners are exaggerated.

Last fall, at the first reading with the playwright, the cast discussed the cartooning possibilities. "We originally thought Oscar Romero could be an Elmer Fudd-type character with his voice and movement," Ramirez said. He also said the cast was torn between the Flying Nun and the Statue of Liberty as the model for a chain-smoking, University of Chicago-trained nun, and considered Pancho Villa for the radical priest and Liberace for the papal nuncio, the Vatican's diplomatic representative. The characters would not remain cartoons forever, they said. During each performance they would slowly become more realistic as their personalities became more rounded.

Patricca was not thrilled by this. "I don't know," he said. "I dont want you ever to stifle your imagination, but about this Elmer Fudd business--"

Romero never became an Elmer Fudd, and after the second preview, Patricca said that though the performance was still a little rough, he had come to like the cartooning. Latino Chicago's Archbishop Romero chatters and waves his hands with abandon--you expect him to stamp his foot at any moment. Around his neck hangs a huge wooden crucifix that looks like it's been borrowed from a wall. The papal nuncio wears a pink wig and a red cape. The nun, who's in a trench coat, snarls like Mae West and walks like Groucho Marx. She pals around with the radical priest who resembles Che Guevara.

After Romero's assassination, everyone--dead, alive, mortal, immortal, right wing, left wing--sings and dances, all smiles, to the salsa beat of Ruben Blades. The song seems lighthearted, but the words are grim, describing the killing of a Spanish priest in Central America.

The 1984 premiere production (and, judging from a few reviews, the subsequent stagings) was much more solemn. Or just plain slow, according to a friend of Patricca's who saw the original. There was also much fanfare, as the gods comported themselves with great pomp. This extravagance and formality annoyed some critics as well as some members of the Latino Chicago cast who saw it.

Now the gods chant, but they're not so otherworldly. They tell the story of the Mayan-Nahuan myth of the Fifth Sun, son of the Lord of the Universe who, like Jesus, sacrifices himself for the good of the world. Franciscan missionaries vying for the souls of the Mayans cleverly combined that story with the story of Jesus to appeal to the Indians, says Patricca. Throughout The Fifth Sun, the Mayan gods are hungry for Romero the martyr.

Through rapid scene shifts, exaggerations, and mythic undertones, the Latino Chicago production gives the flavor of Romero's life and times. After all, says Patricca, you don't have to be realistic to be true to life. He is critical of theater's current devotion to realism: "We love it if we learn how they crack their egg or pick their nose."

Latino Chicago's cast is of like mind. It is a young and hungry group, springing from a 1979 CBS Inc. grant to Victory Gardens. Its members look for inspiration from the broad physicality of Latin American theater and the San Francisco Mime Troupe rather than from what Michael Ramirez, Juan's brother, calls "money theater." They want theater that entertains and is important without being elite. Says Ramirez, who plays the radical priest in the red Che beret: "The common man, common woman is afraid to go to the theater."

Patricca says he wants to gently push the audience. "I want them to contemplate and be moved to compassionate action in the world," he says. As he suits his actions to his word, he adds, "I want to touch their minds, hearts, and souls."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lewis Toby.

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