Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review: La Turista

La Turista La Turista by Sam Shepard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

La Turista is not a play for reading, and probably not a play for seeing. It's a play to be studied. The political references are too obscure for most people to understand during a performance; for a start the allegories are very specifically American (I'm English) and of their time (1967). Even so, according to the reviews of its opening run, most of the New York audience didn't get it either.

For such a play to work as drama, there has to be something – a plot, a story, a character's journey – for the audience to identify with in case they're not getting the subtext. La Turista doesn't even pretend to have that, which explains why 90% of its original audience left the theatre utterly baffled by what they'd just seen. Shepard doesn't give you that. His characters are not characters but archetypes and their words have no meaning beyond the allegorical.

The plot, such as it is, has an American couple (Kent and Salem, named after cigarette brands) lying sick in a hotel in Mexico (i.e. Vietnam) – La Turista means not just a tourist but the kind of dysentery often suffered by tourists. A local boy comes in and won't leave but refuses their money and spits in Kent's face. Kent reappears dressed as a cowboy and is eventually killed by the ministrations of a local witchdoctor.

Act 2 mirrors Act 1 but is set back in America, with the witchdoctor replaced by an American doctor, whose attempts to cure Kent are frustrated by Kent's defiance – the allegory here being that of youth in revolt against its elders.

As usual, Shephard inserts a few coups de theatre that make the play difficult if not impossible to stage. There's nothing as drastic the one-legged man who shaves another actor's head in Buried Child, and it's difficult but not impossible to obey the stage direction:
"SALEM and SONNY make a lunge for KENT who grabs onto a rope and swings over their heads. He … runs straight toward the upstage wall of the set and leaps right through it, leaving a cut out silhouette of his body in the wall"
…but having a witchdoctor slaughter chickens live on stage would give most directors (and theatre managers) pause before staging the play.

Studying La Turista might well be very rewarding, even if it is no longer politically relevant, which is why I've given it two stars rather than the one it deserves purely as the text of a play to be performed.

If I read it again, I'll probably understand the allegorical meaning of the phone being torn from its socket, then being used normally and then being impossible to use because, obviously, it's been torn from its socket. Shepard is many things but incompetent isn't one of them. 'Pretentious' certainly is one of them, but it's the pretension of theatrical ambition, which is something to be applauded. Shepard, who was 25 when he wrote this, would go on to greater things, but La Turista doesn't really work.

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