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Border Strife

FPCT Struggles With a Low-Grade Play in Eyes for Consuela

AT KNIFEPOINT: (from left) Michael Harris and Rodney Atkins get pushed around by Sam Shepard's dopey script.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 1/26/2005

Eyes for Consuela

By Sam Shepard

At the Fells Point Corner Theatre through Feb. 20

It’s probably a coincidence, but a pattern is emerging between the programming at the professional, mightily endowed Center Stage and the hardscrabble, volunteer-staffed Fells Point Corner Theatre. Late last year, FPCT staged The Play About the Baby, a second-rate effort by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Albee; in December, Center Stage produced The Price, a lesser work by another Pulitzer recipient, Arthur Miller. This month, the two theaters are both running plays written by erstwhile actors, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen and Sam Shepard’s Eyes for Consuela. Both of the current shows require actors to speak English in a non-North American accent.

The parallels end when you compare the results. Where Will Frears’ sensitive direction of The Price elevated the script above its occasional mawkishness, Alex Willis’ clumsy staging of The Play About the Baby only underscored Albee’s failure in this case to be either sexy or scary, or at all interesting. (To be fair, The Price is a much better play than Baby.) Likewise, while Elmina’s Kitchen is a sappy melodrama, and the actors’ inability to reproduce convincing Hackney accents a source of distraction, the British urban drama with a Stop Fucking Snitching subplot resonates enough with Baltimore audiences that it has been eliciting standing ovations from sellout crowds. Eyes for Consuela, also overly earnest, likewise suffers from actors unable to fake a convincing accent, though that’s a minor distraction compared to the general shoddiness of the production. (Again, to be fair, Consuela is inferior by an order of magnitude to Elmina’s; Shepard’s mingling of magicalist folklore with his trademark psychological warfare has almost no redeeming qualities whatever.)

Adapted from a three-page short fiction by the Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, Shepard’s 1998 play is set in a Mexican jungle. Henry, a middle-aged American reeling from a wrecked marriage, has taken temporary residence in a village inn. One night, while enjoying a constitutional through the spooky jungle (represented here by extremely loud cricket noises), Henry is confronted by machete-wielding Amado, who tells the gringo that he’s come to gouge out Henry’s blue eyes. Why? For Consuela, Amado’s sweetheart, who’s apparently clinically depressed—only “a bouquet of blue eyes” can raise the corners of her lips, if briefly.

But rather than plucking out prized orbs right there, the tourist and the bandit repair to Henry’s rented room, where they drink tequila, talk about chicks, and argue over whether Henry’s eyes are indeed blue or, as he keeps claiming, brown. Consuela herself makes occasional appearances, swaying (mysteriously, ludicrously) on and off the stage. The one-eyed inn owner, Viejo, is an old-timer and doesn’t seem at all fazed by the prospect of violence in his casa. Then again, he’s seen it all before. There’s a surprise ending of sorts, but it, like everything else about the play, seems contrived to allow the characters to make yet another lame metaphorical reference to “seeing.”

You know a play is poorly structured when there’s literally nothing keeping the characters from fulfilling their putative objectives except the need to remain onstage. Once the bandit has accosted him, Henry just wants to skip town. Reasonable. But he never makes a run for it, even after Viejo passes out drunk. Neither is there anything preventing Amado from fulfilling his eye-popping mission, other than the need to drop nuggets of deep peasant wisdom, to wit: “Your mind is American like a scorpion.” We also get a lot of telling banter like “Why are we here?” and “Why are you doing this to me?,” which could well function as the interior monologues of both the playwright and his audience.

Shepard’s Mexican characters could come across as offensive stereotypes (“I am a seemple man, Meester Henry”), but in the hands of Michael Harris (as Amado) and Richard Peck (as Viejo), they become cartoons. The American doesn’t require an accent, but Rodney Atkins as Henry seems miscast physically. He’s much larger than his aggressor and compensates for this mismatch by whining a lot, which only makes him seem like a big baby and not at all sympathetic. The best performance comes from the pretty Das Elkin, as Consuela, but she has only a handful of lines. Tough luck, hombres.

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