Joe Pintauro's Raft of the Medusa is named after the painting by Gericault (http://www.artchive.com/artchive/G/gericault/raft_of_the_medusa.jpg.html), which depicts the survivors of an 1816 shipwreck. Mutiny, starvation, murder, and cannibalism decreased the 150 people to 15 by the time the raft was found. The play begins with these facts, and then the cast coalesced into a tableau that presented the painting in three dimensions. It was extraordinarily effective, not the least because of the stage backdrop on which was painted the sea, sky, and a large sail. It's a terrific metaphor for the subject of Pintauro's play -- a group therapy session for people with HIV and AIDS.
The group includes a wide range of people -- straight women, drug addicts, convicts, bisexuals, gay men -- everyone's got a story, and everyone's got a temper. It's a volatile mix, and the explosions come like clockwork. Fury, betrayals, resentments, violent attacks, helplessness, tears, confessions -- it's all there, it's programmatic, and it's almost perfectly diagrammable. Thanks to the subject matter, though, and a cast playing full out, it was also undeniably powerful.
So powerful, in fact, that the play's dramatics get in the way of its themes. The characters are stock, summarizable in a sentence, so it was fascinating to watch each performer work his/her magic. Directors Louis Reyes Cardenas and Sarah Rosenberg kept the intermissionless play percolating, and everything came together, oddly enough, in a musical number. The effeminate gay man (David Solomon) begins singing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"; the straight woman (Cidele Curo) chimes in with "I Love Paris"; another jumps in with a rap; and "Someone To Watch Over Me," "If They Could See Me Now," and "America" are added to the mix, which culminates in a joyous rendition of "The Love Boat." It was weird, but it showed the characters' kinship and connection better than the dialog.
Pintauro doesn't ignore content, but he seems more interested in dramatics. The recurring theme of who identifies as gay, straight, or bisexual, who's angry because of it, and the hows and whys of living life in various ways is neglected in favor of a plot tangent about a famous actor (Joseph Mazzella) who has asked to join the group in spite of his not being HIV+. (Can you hear the plot device creaking?) A hearing-impaired drug addict (Gabrielle Corsaro) sticks someone with a needle; the group might have a ringer; why not spend more time with the therapist (John D'Arcangelo)'s quandary about having encouraged a shy man (James Tortora) to be promiscuous (the play seems to be set in the early '90s)? Is the shrink implicated by the man's death? And the man's lover (Christopher Vandijk) is still in the group -- what ramification does that have? Cora, the straight woman, is given her due in a monolog (fiercely presented by Cidele Curo), as is Felicia (Claire Fu), a young girl infected by her first boyfriend.
Thankfully, the superb backdrop (scenic design Bruce Dean, scenic artist Bill Wood) was there throughout, and it gave an unsettling symbolic gravitas to the goings-on, a reminder that few will survive. Peter Wochna's lighting was subtle and unobtrusive, and Johanna Rivera's costumes were true to character. The metaphor of Gericault's painting is so powerful that after a heartfelt (though not really dramatically earned) reconciliation among group members, when the cast reassembled into a tableau, the characters' pain and desperation were more vivid and real than some of the dramatics they'd been through.
Also with Shashi Balooja, Anthony Craig, Ryan Knowles, Greg Fessenden, George Prieto, with Adam Devine and Kimberly Thomas as alternates.
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Copyright 2002 David Mackler