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Stage Review : 'Spain '36' Sings The Praises Of Anti-fascists

June 10, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

The San Francisco Mime Troupe believes that you can make people think by making them laugh. The Los Angeles Theatre Center believes in speaking out for the excluded. It was time they did a show together.

But they could have found something less pious than "Spain '36." Written by the Mime Troupe's Joan Holden, it is a pageant with songs about the brave workers who fought for Spain in '36 against the unholy alliance of church, army and money that was the Fascist cause.

It's exactly the sort of agitprop piece that might have been put on at the time to raise funds for the Lincoln Brigade. (Some Lincoln Brigade veterans attended Friday's opening.) "You can see what it's all about," a character says. "It's us versus them."

The bad guys strut around in masks--wonderful ones by Nicole Morin, especially the pink potato head for Mussolini--but the fighters for freedom are people. Here is the brave old lady giving the workers' salute. Here is the pretty young beautician grabbing a rifle just like a man.

A priest is tortured, but that's OK because the Church is corrupt. (Proof: The priest's crucifix sheathes a knife.) A company of militiamen does a complicated close-order drill with rifles, and that's inspiring because they're fighting on our side. (Has Holden forgotten what George Orwell wrote in "Homage to Catalonia" about the time wasted in close-order drill?)

At its worst, "Spain '36" suggests one of those clunky "revolutionary operas" that the Chinese threw out with Madame Mao. At its best--well, it is never at its best. But several scenes show that Holden is aware that the Spanish Civil War was, in fact, a very complicated affair.

Example: An Anarchist soldier refuses to raise his hand in salute to a Communist officer and is shot to death in order to instill discipline into his comrades. This defines the difficulty the Loyalists had in deciding who "we" were and what "our" methods of running the war should be--a problem that Franco's forces didn't face.

Holden also establishes a suggestive polarity between the pure revolutionary (typified by the Anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti) and the pragmatic political leader (Juan Negrin Lopez, the Republic's last president). But we're not sure which she favors, or if she feels that both are necessary in a real-world situation. The minute the piece starts to ask questions, it's time for another close-order drill.

The only clear moral of "Spain '36" is that the U.S. should intervene in foreign wars on behalf of freedom fighters. Mr. Reagan, not a Mime Troupe hero, has been telling us the same thing for years. The problem with generalities is that anybody can make them. "Spain '36" doesn't contribute to sharper thinking about the 1930s or the 1980s.

The production isn't quite in place--the script is still being worked on--but there are three fine individual performances. Gustave Johnson makes Durruti a forthright revolutionary, not a brute. Arthur Holden makes the moderate Lopez a thoughtful leader, not a timid compromiser. And Wilma Bonet is a sparkplug, whether as Durruti's mistress or (under one of those masks) as Franco.

'SPAIN '36' Joan Holden's play about the Spanish Civil War, presented by the San Francisco Mime Troupe at Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Daniel Chumley. Producer Diane White. Music and lyrics Bruce Barthol, Edward Barnes. Musical direction Barnes. Choreography Kimi Okada. Mime and mask movement Leonard Pitt. Masks designed by Nicole Morin. Set, lighting and costume design Timian Alsaker. Dramaturg Adam Leipzig. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Stage manager Lee Alan Byron. Production manager Stacie Powers. With Wilma Bonet, Charles Degelman, Arthur Holden, Gustave Johnson, Ed Levey, Kate Lindsey, Sharon Lockwood, Barrett A. Nelson, Muziki Duane Roberson, Eduardo Robledo, Philip Ray Rolfe, Joe Romano, Maura Sandoval, Audrey Ann Smith, Leonard L. Thomas, Deanar Ali Young. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets $10-$22. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 627-6500.

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