Trial by Fire

"Show Time!" in Waco (a Brief, Tragic History)

By Sharon Surhoff
Directed by Matthew Corozine
Paulsha Productions
Sanford Meisner Theater
164 11th Ave. (539-3930)
Equity showcase (closes April 30)
Review by Adrienne Onofri

According to her program biography, Sharon Surhoff "headed in the direction of playwright the day Mount Carmel [the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas] burned." Did she reach her destination? "Show Time!" in Waco indicates that Surhoff has some dexterity with language but little consideration for theatrics. The second act is dominated by long scenes of negotiation between Davidian leader David Koresh and the FBI. These conversations-which we could hear on Frontline-hinder Surhoff's purpose (according to press materials): to make "the audience feel something about those who lived at Mount Carmel."

They also contradict the play's subtitle: A Brief, Tragic History. The tedious second act drags the play out to two hours and 15 minutes. And it's not until the two-hour mark that we finally get to see Koresh rouse his followers with his preaching.

Surhoff would have been more successful if she had maintained the play's early tempo. The first scenes of Act I, covering certain dates from 1989 to 1994, shift from U.S. District Court to the Mount Carmel living room to the Dallas office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. These snapshots present an informative and dynamic look at the events surrounding the fatal fire and the personalities who figured in them. But then the script gets bogged down in the Koresh-FBI dialogue that grows redundant and sheds no light on the Davidians as individuals. A series of terse, emotionally charged scenes would have better focused attention-and sympathy-on Koresh's disciples.

There are a few of these moments: when an outsider, converted after hearing Koresh on the radio, braves the battalion of federal agents to enter Mount Carmel; when Davidians (including a child) testify to their beliefs on a videotape they hope will counteract their image in the press; and when an older woman who chooses to leave the compound says goodbye to her daughter. Furthermore, the depiction of the wrangling within the federal agencies and of the proto-entrepreneurs trying to make a quick buck off this erstwhile tourist attraction helps couch the incident in a larger sociological context. But all these episodes are buried within longer scenes or spread too far apart to create a compelling piece of theater.

Michael McCartney, an excellent physical match for the role, brought out Koresh's complexity: a gentle persuasiveness that could be construed-depending on one's credulity-as sincere or insidious. The other actors, most of whom played multiple roles, were generally satisfactory, although there were some flaws. Joe Capozzi's blindness was convincing; Lisa Bruno's Hispanic accent was not. Jeanne LaSala seemed more comfortable (and suited to) playing a flirtatious ATF secretary than a repressed cult member. Twelve-year-old Freddy Jaramillo was extremely natural as the young Davidian explaining his devotion to Koresh. On the other hand, during the phone conversations, McCartney and Ian Hunter Gibbs tended to move as if they were onstage rather than in an office-McCartney sometimes talked with his back to the speakerphone, and Gibbs kept walking downstage, away from his desk.

(Also featuring James Gilchrist, Penrod Parker, William Mahoney, Jon Malmed, Coleman Zeigen, Alvaro J. Gonzalez, Stephen Pfeiffer, T.J. Gambrel, Tim Sarubbi and David Williams. Set, Eric Zoback; lighting, Peter Petrino; sound, Frank Silvestri.)

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2000 Adrienne Onofri