LUST, MURDER AND BAD PARENTING
"Night over Taos" by Maxwell Anderson.
Produced by INTAR.
Directed by Estelle Parsons.
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at 10th St.), NYC
Oct. 1-20, 2007 (CLOSED)
Wed.-Sat. at 8; Sat. at 2; Sun. at 3.
Tickets $10-25. www.theatermania.com or 212-352-3101. Group sales 212-695-6134.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank
In its frenetic search for the next new voice or style, the many theatre festivals in New York have been demonstrating the need for craft – and with craft the American masters whose work has fallen by the wayside. The award-winning Mint Theatre and Transport Group at the Connelly Center have been holding the banner high. Recently INTAR, under the guidance of Eduardo Machado, has joined them with Maxwell Anderson's "Night over Taos." The 1932 play offers audiences both the historical and the contemporary -- thanks in large part to the insight of director Estelle Parsons. The play runs almost three hours but time flies by. It is hard to come by that sense of real satisfaction from ticket prices this reasonable.
"Night over Taos" tells a fascinating but forgotten bit of Americana from the perspective of the losers. It's 1847. The Spanish land barons in the Southwest, abandoned by both Spain and by Mexico, are under attack by the United States Army. President Polk intends to annex the territory under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and punish the small settlement for slaughtering (and scalping) American citizens. This is the time of "Remember the Alamo," a rallying cry for the young country flexing its biceps. Although there may be parallels to contemporary events, the INTAR production is true to the 1930s play.
We find ourselves in the great hall of the leading family of Taos. Pablo Montoya (Jack Landron), the dictatorial father, is absent, fighting. We meet Federico, the older son (Bryant Mason), who betrays his father by revealing his battle strategy and making a deal in order to salvage half the estate. It seems that he's the villain and the younger brother, Felipe (Mickey Solis), who loves his father, is the protagonist, but we soon discover that Anderson had in mind a far more complex and compelling world, one that mirrors our own in its moral paradox. Very nice! We are invited to ponder Justice, Fate, History – the big questions -- although they never interfere with the high drama on stage and the living characters.
The hacienda fears that the father and his mostly Indian troops have been killed. After much peasant mourning and family angst – and a few informal family meetings to hatch internecine plots -- the patriarch returns. He has survived the ambush and is anticipating his counter-attack, but the tensions at home defeat him. He is the last of a dying breed – the feudal lord who takes what he wants when he wants it and believes he can stop history. He is willing to murder his only sons when they thwart his will. What makes the play so powerful is the inevitability of the town's fate –maybe not this year, but next. Montoya is the waning influence of the Old World. The Wild West isn't just around the corner; it has arrived, and with it, the seeds of equality and democracy. Even the creaky close – what you would expect from a 1932 play written from a politically correct, leftist perspective – is not a mortal flaw in a drama with two powerful two earlier acts and rare historical sweep.
The season owes a thank you to Estelle Parsons for rescuing this Anderson gem. The premiere at the 48th St. Theatre, which was helmed by Lee Strasberg for the Group Theatre, ran only 13 performances. Parsons' direction is clean and eloquent. She chose a small platform and choreographed the entrances and exits of the large cast of 25 actors with a natural ease. The casting itself of mostly Latinos in the Spanish and indigenous roles achieved a rare verisimilitude that evoked both time and place. When not performing, the actors sat in chair around the raised platform so that they were always present, listening and reacting to the events on stage – a community whose lives were in danger. The costumes by Michael Krass and minimalist staging by Peter Larkin also created a powerful imaginative pull, as though we knew that outside we would find the harsh terrain -- tumbleweed, desert, and snowy mountain winters -- of what is now New Mexico. Original music by Yukio Tsuji set the mood.
Most of the minor performances were compelling, but the lead actors struggled with their roles. Jack Landron almost pulled it off, especially when he stood on the table and thundered at the landowners who wanted to surrender, but the character of the patriarch calls for the talent of a James Earl Jones or George C. Scott, an epic presence. Mickey Solis and Cheryl Lynn Bowers, the lovers, hadn't found the core of their roles so they came across as stereotypes and the subplot limped. The strongest performances was by Bryant Mason, who conveyed -- without fuss or mannerisms -- his thwarted ambitions as the heir to a man who refuses to die or abdicate power, his sense of the powerful American presence, and his dismay at the decisions he feels forced to make. It is always good to see Miriam Colon Valle, the Artistic Director of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, on stage, even in a supporting role.