By EDWARD RUBIN
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, New York City based IATI Theater Todo Vanguardia which is devoted to contemporary, cutting-edge Latino works, could not have selected a more compelling and beautifully crafted play than Rhett Martinez’ Three On A Match, which examines state sponsored terrorism in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, and then, by a short stretch of the imagination, similar horrors currently going on in other parts of the world.
Running through Saturday, March 17, Three On A Match is a must see, not only for its harrowing subject matter but for its superior direction by Eric Parness and his assistant director Anna Hogan as well as its exceptional cast (Angus Hepburn, Sean Phillips, Elisa de la Roche, Rosa Rodriguez).
It is also the play’s blend of the surreal, magical realism, along with the very real, marbled throughout with mind-triggering allusions and much mystery, all of which serve to keep the audience riveted to the stage. The playwright and the cast cautiously walk a wobbly tightrope with not a misstep in view.
The entire play – set in the present – takes place in the lobby of the once opulent Grand Hotel in an unidentified South American country. Adding much flavor to the story is the now decaying lobby setting by G. Warren Stiles. Abandoned during The Glorious War, all that remains in the lobby is a scattering of chairs, a couch, lamps, rugs, a reception desk and a rack full of men’s hats on the back wall.
Aside from the three remaining residents, everybody else has fled the hotel due to the war. Occasional exterior sounds of distant gunshots, rumbling trucks and militants shouting indicate The Glorious War is apparently still being fought. The sole staff member is the ever-attendant Girl Bellboy, who observes each of the play’s characters as they enter the lobby both slowly and silently. It appears, as they stop to take stock, they do not even see each other.
Tension builds, as we learn eventually (though never quite fully) that the Queen of Anvondalia’s (Elisa de la Roche) island nation has recently sunk into the Atlantic Ocean. Though she never utters a word till mid play, the Girl Bellboy (Rosa Rodriguez) reveals the whole truth as to who these people really are.
As far as the two most vocal characters – Haberdasher (Angus Hepburn) and the American (Sean Phillips) – both appear to have deeply buried secret lives and the audience is kept on tenterhooks.
The play opens with the Girl Bellboy asleep on a tangled pile of blankets. Slowly getting up she stares, somewhat strangely and at length at the lobby’s ceiling – we later learn that the ceiling is covered by a fresco of clouds – and begins her daily routine which consists of a series of regimented exercises. Quickly donning her uniform, she leaves the stage only to return carrying a tea set on a silver platter which she places down on a small side table. With everything in place, in walks the Haberdasher who thanks The Bell Girl profusely for her services. The Queen, regularly given to memory loss, tentatively enters the lobby where she is greeted royally by the ever-courtly Haberdasher. It is obvious we are seeing their daily routine.
Aside from serving the morning repast, which consists primarily of tea and bread as food is scarce, another of the Girl Bellboy’s duties is to fetch the daily newspaper, as well as bringing back government issued decrees. Most of these, like limiting one mirror per household, banning two on a bicycle and three on a match, from which the play takes its title, are absurd. Upon returning with the newspaper – one of the few laughs in the play – we notice that the newspaper, with large sections cut out in the shape of circles, reminiscent of a wedge of Swiss cheese is riddled with holes. What does remain is filled with a double talk straight out of Orwell’s “1984.”
Claiming to be “fluent in the language of state propaganda, Haberdasher, as he reads aloud, interprets the hidden meaning behind each article. “It is all lies,” he says. “Expected in Growing Economy! translates into “Expect Record Bread Lines, Shrinking Rations!” “Thousands Celebrate Another Victory for the United Ministry,” means “Thousands Die in Another Battle of Blind Nationalism;” and “The People’s Army Inducts Record Number of Recruits” translates to The Army Imposes Conscription;” and “New School Opens in Jewish Quarter!” should properly be translated to “New School Erected Atop Mass Graves.”
The tenor of the entire play changes when a smartly dressed stranger arrives at the hotel. With a passport, a reservation confirmation in hand, and American dollars which he flashes about, he insists on being checked in, this despite being told by the Haberdasher that the hotel has long been closed and there is no staff. Forcing the issue by changing from nice to menacing, he is given a key to the penthouse. Thus begins a torturous and soon-to-be violent journey, with the American forcing the Girl Bellboy to spit shine his shoes, the Haberdasher to mend his perfect hat which is in perfect condition, and conducting a threatening and sexually provocative interrogation of the Queen.
It is here during these interrogations that we find out from the Haberdasher, who tries to shield both the Queen and the still-mute Girl Bellboy, that the Girl Bellboy is the child of parents who were among the thousands of innocent citizens who were deemed enemies of the state. Referred to as,“los desaparecidos,” they were kidnapped, tortured and made to disappear – often by dropping them in the ocean by plane – by the government.
The most truculent confrontations which lead from heated conversations and pointed exchanges, to fisticuffs occur between the American and the Haberdasher, both of who claim to know about each other’s secret past. While both men have their turn at having the upper hand, it is an antique radio found by the Girl Bellboy that unexpectedly changes the course of the play. As the ending nears, the three hotel residents with the now incapacitated American listening through his tears, is told of the various murderous ways of making him disappear without a trace.
“They will come looking for me,” he says.
“Let them come down,” the Haberdasher answers. Let them come down. They come down anyway. They have been coming down here for…how long has it been? A hundred years? Two hundred years? They come down…but they never last. They cannot last, because there are more of us than there are of them. There will always be more of us than there are of them. Of you. You don’t belong here. You are a trespasser here. They may come. But they won’t even be looking for you. Because you…will have been disappeared.”
Program Note from the Playwright: “Three on a Match is not an attempt to tell a single story from their world figuratively. It’s about the forces at work behind such stories – forces of human nature, of human goodness, of failed governments, of tyrannical empires, and ultimately, of our own complicity. It’s a revenge play in which the oppressors finally get what they deserve because the oppressed find the courage to rise.”
Backstory: “Disappearance,” as a technique of South American politics, horrifies in its scale. In Argentina, 30,000 people were disappeared during the dirty war. In Chile, 3,000 people were killed or disappeared. In Colombia, after a half century of internal war, more than 51,000 people are now registered by the government as missing without a trace and the real total may be as high as 92,000, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. More than 1,130 new cases of forced disappearance have been officially registered in the last three years. In noting this, we are framing “disappearance” as a regional historical trauma. Nevertheless, the unnamed city wherein the play unfolds could be any number of cities throughout history. The task for the cast of four is not only to find true human impulse within a fantastical, abstracted reality, but to bring to life archetypes that represent a global history of oppression and violence.
Opened: February 23 2018
Ending March 17, 2018
Company: IATI Theater Todo Vanguardia
Theater Address: 64 East 4th Street, NYC 10003
Running Time: 85 minutes
Author: Rhett Martinez $30 General Admission, $25 Students & Seniors
Box office (212) 505-6757
Director: Eric Parness
Fight: Choreographer: Alberto Bonilla
Original Music: Haydn & Gabriel Garcia, “Desaparecidos” was written in collaboration with Rosa Rodriquez
Cast: Rosa Rodriquez, Angus Hepburn, Elisa de la Roche, Sean Phillips
Technical: Scenic Designer: G. Warren Stiles, Costume Designer: Viviane Galloway, Lighting Designer: Miguel Valderrama; Sound Designers: Haydn Diaz & Gabriel Garcia, Prop Designer: Gabriel Garcia