El Centro: A belated Vancouver Fringe review

Some plays come to the Vancouver Fringe hundreds (maybe Shakespeare) or thousands (Sophocles, say) of years old, with innumerable performances and interpretations behind them. But most of the productions you see at a Fringe festival (including in Vancouver) are recent works. Quite often these plays are seeing their first production. The playwright, for budget reasons if nothing else, is typically doing double duty as one of a very small crew in order to make the play work. At the Fringe, it’s encouraged and expected that the artistic direction of a piece may change as audience feedback comes in. Then the play may move on to other Fringe festivals, and pretty soon, you have gone from a newborn, probably rather wobbly work to a fully-grown, or at least adolescent production.

“El Centro” is in this exciting, rapidly growing stage of development. I saw this play twice, once at Havana as a preview prior to the Vancouver Fringe Festival starting, and once halfway through its run at the Firehall. Already I saw improvements, with tightened focus and increased clarity. I heard there were other significant plot changes in subsequent showings, and I would love to see where the play is now. However, I’ll have to focus on what I saw. Michael Dickson (playing the former Professor Rand Cohen) and Chris Cope (playing Alex, a sometime student) play two men who are anguished by Guatemala, for somewhat different reasons.

Digressing slightly, I have to say that Graham Greene is one of my favourite authors. I don’t know if the playwright Daniel Morton had Graham Greene in mind, but I feel Greene’s presence in “El Centro”. In fact, the Cohen character might be himself a Greene-like figure. Then add my love of Latin America (the length and breadth of Mexico is where I have traveled most there), and I cannot help but be taken by this play. I don’t know if it has the elements to achieve a wider audience; time will tell for that.

As character actors, Dickson and Cope do a remarkable job. Cope makes Alex’s ADHD-troubled character twitchy and nervous. You can feel his discomfort as you watch him. Dickson is a burnt-out case, addicted to alcohol and some nameless prescription drugs. If these characters sound unattractive and hard to sympathize with, you are correct. The playwright does not rely on mawkish sentiment to make us feel affection and empathy for these two, again following Greene.

If I have to look for weak points, the idea that Alex would track down Cohen late at night in his dingy office (or is it his home) after making a huge effort to find Cohen, and that Cohen would answer the door, might seem unlikely. But I don’t want to detract from the point that is being made here. Travel can be hugely dislocating and disorienting. It may feel like the only person who really understands is another traveler. Although I have patient friends who have listened to my travel accounts, it is really hard to get across some of the feelings of surprise, shock, and even hatred that can arise in certain difficult travel circumstances.

The play features a pas de deux between these two men. Their age is about right for a father-son relationship. And, as we learn, Cohen has lost a child, and Alex’s parents distance themselves so much from him that he is convinced they are utterly uncaring. The academic relationship as a form of paternal surrogacy is certainly a common trope, but Cohen and Alex never quite get to that level of relationship. Or perhaps they do — they recreate another dysfunctional father-son relationship.
Alex has had a bad experience in Guatemala. And he’s lied about it to everyone, as he cannot face the truth of what happened. He tries to lie about it to his former professor, who knows better. We know that something bad happened to Cohen, and we can see the wreckage of his life in front of us, as he gulps rum and pills. But what happened exactly? Alex gets Cohen to explain, perhaps inadvertently. And Cohen gets Adam to say what happened to him in Guatemala, on the outskirts of the impossibly beautiful city of Antigua. When traveling, it’s often hard to reconcile a beautiful spot, with gorgeous architecture and gardens and colors, with an immense toll of human suffering, and also with having personally horrific experiences in this beautiful place. Cohen and Alex get this discordance across.

The playwright Daniel Morton, as I discussed with the director Cecilia Davis, made a deliberate decision not to be didactic about political issues. In my case, I have so many issues memorized, and they come out almost by rote(not that I am an expert, by any stretch!). When I think of Guatemala, I immediately think of the United Fruit Company in 1954, environmental catastrophes caused by mining, an exceedingly high rate of child malnutrition, and other past and current events. I am curious how this play will work for an audience with no particular exposure to Latin America, but that is hard for me to judge. On one hand, I appreciate the playwright’s choice not to get embroiled in politics, while at the same time wondering if too much is left unexplained if none of the political background is discussed. Graham Greene is a novelist, so he has a much wider canvas in which to subtly develop political themes, so the comparison only works to a certain extent. This might be an area that would benefit from very careful development, because plays as political tracts are rarely successful as such. I see a lot of elements in this play that are excellent, and the actors have done a masterful job of breathing life into this work. I think that some twists and turns and subtle changes could make this play a masterpiece.
Off on a tangent again, but I can’t help it: Do read Graham Greene! And read Pico Iyer’s “The Man Inside My Head”, where Iyer, an acclaimed and very well-traveled writer, talks about his quasi-paternal relationship with Greene, a man he never met nor spoke to. (And if that sounds crazy, that’s because Greene has that type of effect.)

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