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Photograph by Carlos Velazquez
LIFE LESSONS: Che Guevera (Mauricio Mendoza) spends his last day in captivity with teacher Julía (Minerva García) in 'School of the Americas.'

Che for a Day

Teatro Visión homes in on the final hours of the revolutionary's life

By Marianne Messina

FACTS CAN be merciless dictators over art, but in the case of School of the Americas at Teatro Visión, playwright José Rivera has maintained both respectful and creative control over the many biographies and personal journals about and by Ernesto "Che" Guevara Lynch. The play interpolates an amazing amount of this detail. At one point, Rivera's Che (Mauricio Mendoza) says, "No one can kick my fucking ass in an intellectual argument like my mother." This well-documented tension between Guevara and his mother—sharing their love of learning yet sparring viciously on ideology—seems to inform the central relationship of the play.

The story begins on the penultimate day of Che's life, in Bolivia, after the famous Argentine revolutionary (who helped Fidel Castro take Cuba) has been shot, captured and thrown into a dirty, streaked-wall school house (designed by Christopher M. Kristant). The rural school's outspoken schoolteacher, Julía Cortez (Minerva García), decides she's going to brave guards like Félix "Ramos" Rodriguez (David Cavallero) to visit the great Che. (Expect some well-executed manhandling and brutality.) In drudgy sweater over a dress hemmed below the knee—fashion statement: '60s spinster—Julía finds Che bound on the floor, his face dirt-smeared, his hair matted, his fatigues blood-stained (costumes by Wilma Bonet). Julía tells him she deplores what the Bolivian soldiers are doing to him; later, she (dressed much more fetchingly, ahem) brings him soup. In an excruciating scene, she spoon-feeds him, unwrapping the wooden bowl from its towel so tenderly and deliberately that she clearly signals the ritual significance of breaking bread.

Throughout their dialogue, which ranges from heated to humorous, from grief-smitten to wistful, one cringes to think that this intriguing premise might degenerate into a romance. But time after time, romantic promise is interrupted by brutal reality or uncompromising idealism. This ingenious tension gives us direct experience of the constant friction in Che's life story between Romantic ideals and brutal tactical exigencies.

Mendoza boldly takes on the iconic Che in a wrenching performance and an often strained, hoarse voice. Under the direction of Wilma Bonet, his motivations seem fueled more by situation than character. In some cases the effect is stark realism. Occasionally, it sacrifices lines that beg for interpretation, presumably so that multiple Che myths might live (Che the righteous, Che el fuerte, Che the failed fool, Che el loco). On his knees (if you've read accounts that Che had been shot in the calf, you'll be feeling serious ouch), Mendoza offers one of his most powerful arcs—anger melting into self-mystification—when Che tells the story of stabbing his horse in despair and frustration, then crying and patting it with remorse. (Any man whose face remains on paraphernalia and plaza monuments 40 years after his death has to have contradictions.) As fiercely compelling as Mendoza can be, it is García who gives us humanity—her willful humor, forthright yet vulnerable; her determination, outbursts followed by timidity. She is able to pull our sympathies from Che's large, explosive life to her small and plodding one. García's final anguished cries lament not only Che's passing but the shrinking of the mythic world back into the quotidian one, where she has much work to do.

SCHOOL OF THE AMERICAS, a Teatro Visión production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Feb. 10 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza Theater, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $10–$24. (408.272.9926)

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