Review by Tulis McCall
(12 Jun 2010)
Oh how the best-laid plans can fall flat. Modotti is an extremely earnest attempt to tell a story about a woman who led an extraordinary life. Tina Modotti was a silent film actress who believed in sexual and political freedom. She loved as fiercely as she fought for civil rights. Her tools were the camera she was given by Edward Weston and her own political voice.
I didn’t know about Modotti before this production and am now eager to learn more about this woman for whom Mexico became home. Diego Rivera was her contemporary and friend. She worked with Bertram and Ella Wolfe in the Communist Party. The world was in tumult and Modotti wanted to be as close to its access as possible. When her work caused her to be exiled from Mexico she went to Spain to fight.
In her desire to tell Modotti’s tale, Wendy Beckett has created a play that is more lecture than drama. Facts are thrown at us one after the other until they pile so high on stage that they obscure the characters. Beckett fares better in the second act than the first because much of the factual groundwork has been covered so the characters get a chance to emerge. The scene in which Weston and Modotti separate is very moving. Weston wanted to create art as a refuge for the viewer. Modotti wanted her art to be a call to action. Their separation was inevitable and tragic – and it never really took.
This is precisely the sort of emotional situation that we go to the theatre to see. We humans are fickle, and history is not that interesting unless it is pinned to characters with whom we can connect. We care about the emotion first and the facts later. Just look around. How do you think George Bush got re-elected anyway?
The cast does as well as they can. Alysia Reiner as Modotti is given the herculean task of pulling the story forward and she is able to create a character of substance. Oddly, Jack Gwaltney as Edward Weston does not fare as well as he appears less committed to his character and uncertain of his blocking. Andy Paris doubles as two of Modotti’s lovers Roubaix "Robo" de l'Abrie Richey and Julio Antonio Mella which does not quite work – although Paris does his best. This was an odd directorial choice among many others. Accents are uneven. Some characters wear leather soled shoes that make the lightest move on the hollow platforms sound like stomping horses. Music is played for dancing, and these actors don’t know how. The blocking is unimaginative and leaves the actors with too much time and not enough action. The play stretches over 20 years with no change in anyone’s appearance.
And while the technical inconsistencies mount up so do the history lessons. Stalin vs. Trotsky. Communism vs. Fascism. Franco vs. Hitler. Not to mention the bit players and side stories we are asked to follow.
It is clear the Ms. Beckett is passionate about her subject, but with Modotti Beckett has sacrificed passion for facts. She would do well to exercise her artistic license and let her passion guide her to create the story she hears so clearly. The facts will find their way home when passion and story drop the right breadcrumbs.