By Bill Hirschman
In this post-9/11 time of mass shootings, plane crashes and deadly hurricanes, we ruminate even more than during the Black Plague and Vesuvius raining hell on Pompeii about the seeming randomness of blind fate or God’s inscrutable will — and taking it a step further to wonder is there a meaning to life.
Thornton Wilder asked those questions and other penetrating conundrums in his 1927 Pulitzer-winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey about a Peruvian priest investigating the lives of seemingly disconnected strangers who die when an ancient bridge collapses into an abyss in 1714.
His post-tragedy kind of Citizen Kane inquiry into the victims’ backstories determines that they were interconnected although they lived highly individualized lives.
That detective story provides the drive behind a highly theatrical stage version — much of it told in rhyming verse — in an intriguing Miami New Drama production written by, directed and starring the renowned off-Broadway fixture David Greenspan.
It features inventive staging and some bravura acting including the stunning performance by New York actor Mary Lou Rosato which is a master class in delivering the beauty of poetic verbiage while never losing an iota of meaning or emotion.
Greenspan makes no attempt at naturalism or cinematic recreation of the novel. Instead, it embraces a stylized approach relying on the specific strengths of theater. Besides the verse dominating much of the play, the events are narrated and the actors ushered around the set by the kind of gesticulating emcee solely found in theater, in this case Greenspan uttering wry omniscient judgments and even mentioning Wilder by name. The actors are usually visible sitting in the wings waiting to go on as the action proceeds on the setting of an aging decaying theater space with a decaying gilded proscenium. Most speeches are delivered directly to the audience. Actors depict characters rather than inhabit them.
All this intentional artifice, plus the verse, has a Brechtian distancing effect so we rarely care much about the characters or even their eventual fate. But making up for this are the engaging stories of the victims and the people in their lives. As portrayed by this cast under Greenspan’s direction, they are fascinating, vibrant creatures headed toward a future which initially is as unknown to us as it is to them.
The world is populated by Dona Maria (Rosato), a quirky, almost silly aging doyenne; Dona Clara (Lindsey Corey) her estranged daughter living in Spain; Pepita (Marcela Jabes), her servant; La Camila Perichole (Jeanette Dilone), a talented but imperious stage diva; Uncle Pio (Greenspan in a second role), her faithful mentor and protector; twin brothers Esteban and Manuel (Austin Reed Alleman and Kevin Veloz), one of whom is insanely in love with the actress; Madre Maria (Karen Stephens), a nun who helped raise Pepita; and Capt. Alvardo (Carlos Orizondo in one of five roles).
Greenspan credits some of the staging to Ken Rus Schmoll who directed the world premiere in 2018 in New Jersey, but Greenspan’s infectious passion and vision obviously imbues the entire undertaking. Especially notable is his hurtling pace of the first two-thirds of the 80-minute evening. No one can complain that the work lags.
The entire cast does commendable work, but special notice is due Rosato, a famed New York actress and teacher, raised in Miami, who studied at the University of Miami, was part of the first Juilliard acting class along with Patti Lupone, Kevin Kline and later joined John Houseman’s legendary The Acting Company. She also was taught by local theater icon Ellen Davis, who was in the audience the opening weekend.
Her skill with the stylized formalized verbiage is so highly developed, so smooth, that you don’t even realize that she is speaking verse until words begin to rhyme. She more than anyone on stage manages to infuse the stirrings of passion in the strictured language. She can inhabit a fussy too-proud-for-her-actual-worth like a Hispanic Lady Bracknell. But, minor spoiler alert, when her character undergoes a profound change late in the play, she convincingly morphs from a figure worthy of gentle ridicule to a human being transformed by a epiphany. It is rare anyone down here does verse plays or Restoration theater and we’ve bemoaned that there are only a handful of people here who can handle Shakespeare. But even the best of those outings pale in this spectacle of someone who has been so well-trained in the genres and who has spent a good piece of her life practicing it.
Credit where credit is due: Greenspan’s achievement is using some of Wilder’s words, but essentially rewriting much of it to fit either the theatrical monologues of the narrator or the extensive verse. The words burble out of the characters’ mouths with intricate internal rhymes worthy of Sondheim. My recollection of poetic meter is faulty, but the rhythm echoes Dr. Seuss’ tetrameter. He has streamlined the tale, cutting out some of Wilder’s characters, not the least of which is the investigating priest Father Juniper who had held together Wilder’s story.
Strangely absent during the work, but prominent afterwards, the poignancy of the events produces the “accident or Act of God” question on patron’s ride home that neither Wilder nor this play attempts to answer
This is only the second production of the play. When the Wilder Estate representatives saw Miami New Drama’s unique take on Our Town in 2017 — with one family speaking Spanish and the other Creole in their homes — they suggested this work to company founder Michel Hausmann.
Miami New Drama deserves promise once again for taking chances with highly theatrical work meant to draw on, depict and comment upon Miami’s multi-cultural environment. Some works have been unqualified successes, many have been intriguing, a few were badly flawed. But they are always presenting challenging work you won’t see anywhere else.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey from Miami New Drama runs through Nov.17 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. Shows 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $39-65. Running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Visit miaminewdrama.org or https://www.colonymb.org