If nothing else, Brazilian playwright Roberto Athayde's satire, "La Senorita Margarita (Miss Margarida's Way)," affirms the great Hungarian writer George Konrad's observation that, under oppression, an artist must be more inventive than usual. Like Konrad's own work, Athayde's play employs a clever metaphor to hide the fact that he's lambasting fascism.
Miss Margarida, a stern, psychologically disturbed schoolteacher, stands in for the Brazilian military dictators (the play was written in 1973). Though she's trying to teach biology rather than drill soldiers, the aim is the same: total order through total obedience. A first glance suggests that Athayde's invention may be more politically powerful than a literal treatment.
Ilka Tanya Payan's Margarida reinforces that suggestion at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts. Watch how she bundles up her hair in the best schoolmarm manner, and a torrent of self-repressed feelings spill out. (When she loosens her hair, she doesn't know what to do with those feelings.) Her carefully gestural performance keeps us all the more attuned to Dolores Prida's English translation--a new venture for Payan, who has toured the play in Spanish-speaking countries for the past couple of years.
Athayde's metaphor soon loses momentum, however, because it is clear much too soon that his teacher has nowhere to go but down. She is not an affectionate villain, though she triggers tattered memories of our worst days in the classroom and thus becomes a universal figure. There is only one device that cuts against this unmitigated portrait of evil: broad absurdism, which itself becomes repetitive under Prida's direction.
Were Payan able to play off someone, her performance--and the play--could become indelible. Dan DeLeon's student (he sits among his fellow students, the audience) is no more than a means to shift rhythms from time to time. The melodramatic ending does little to erase the impression that this student, at least, doesn't live in a fascist state.
Performances at 421 N. Avenue 19, Lincoln Heights, run Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. (English), Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Sundays, 3 p.m. (Spanish), through June 26. Tickets: $12; (213) 225-4044.
'The Merry Wives of Windsor'
"The Merry Wives of Windsor" is surely among the slightest of Shakespeare's comedies, and it hardly constitutes a real test for the fledgling comedy actors in Al Rossi's Los Angeles City College production (the school's 699th in their 59th season). Casting the gifted comedian and improviser, Avery Schreiber, as Falstaff does offer Rossi's students an opportunity, though, to play with a pro.
The students are earnest; some, like Mark Vila as the dapper suitor Fenton and David Andrew Swift as Fenton's hapless, wobbly competitor, Slender, show some real style to match the fact that they've got their basic technique down.
The problem is the big man on campus: Try as he might, Schreiber's no Falstaff.
It is hardly a case of lost skills. He still projects the mix of wily nefariousness and cuddly cordiality he fashioned during his halcyon days with The Committee in the '60s. And it is no problem sympathizing with this Falstaff against all your better, moral instincts.
Because the Falstaff of "Merry Wives" is without Hal and a greater, potentially tragic impulse, he is merely an aging buffoon goosing the women. Schreiber gooses allright, but there's no aging going on. He's simply too young to put across time's physical impediments. In 20 years, though, he might be the Falstaff of our dreams.
Performances at Los Angeles City College Camino Theatre, 855 N. Vermont Ave. are Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m., ending Saturday. Tickets: $5-$6; (213) 669-5528.
Where do L.A. City College thespians go after graduation? A bunch of them have migrated to the Second Stage Theatre, where they're playing in writer-director Justin Tanner's vampire spoof, "Red Tide."
This is a case of fairly undisciplined writing encouraging unmistakably sloppy acting. For instance, Sylvia (Laurel Green) is such a faintly sketched-in character--she's a month-old newcomer to a gang of young vampires--that Green is allowed to indulge in her Valley Girl impression.
Because "Red Tide" introduces a tragic subject--can vampires be infected with AIDS?--into the spoof, it's unfortunate that Tanner felt it necessary to ape last year's teen vampire hit, "The Lost Boys," and did not develop a fresh attitude toward the age-old vampire-as-youth theme.
The closest he comes is a play-within-a-play that a would-be director (Walter Barnett) plays out with Sylvia: a version of "Pandora's Box" that obviously reflects on the AIDS plot. Instead of building to a suspenseful pinnacle (this is spoofing with blood on its hands, after all), all plots large and small simply collapse.
Dan Teachout overacts as the bad vampire, while Gavin J. Atkins instills his nice vampire with some human feeling of loss and regret. Both, along with Tracy Birmingham, manage a second-act character change that is the show's best stroke of wit.
Performances are at 6500 Santa Monica Blvd. on Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., until July 9. Tickets: $10; (213) 466-1767.