Sunday, April 27, 2008

Passionate people in action

Two strong, passionate personalities were at the center of two shows we saw this weekend: both "criminal" to a greater or lesser degree, but both captivating in unconventional ways.

The first was MultiStages' production of a new musical play, The Judas Tree at Teatro La Tea. Inspired by the true crimes of Dorothea Puente, it follows the story of Elena Fiero, a charismatic woman, a drifter once herself, who took some of society's outcasts into her boarding house and - to put it bluntly - helped them to die: sort of sexy Earth Mother meets Dr. Kevorkian, if you will. The book is imbued with the kind of Garcia Marquez-type magical realism that is wonderfully at home on the page, but can be a challenge to bring to the stage. That said, I have to say this production rises to that challenge admirably. The magic is mostly embodied by a team of five dancers that act like a Greek chorus of flowers in the main character's lush garden (she uses "natural" fertilizer that stinks to high heaven). The retired detective who is sent to investigate disappearances at the boarding house - and becomes deeply attracted to Elena - also sprinkles the action with fantasy, as he narrates part of the tale as the Judas tree of the title. Elena believes that she is bringing peace to troubled souls and reuniting them with the earth in the most wholesome way. The people of California, in a courtroom that frames the story, believe she committed premeditated murder dozens of times. Both views, one could argue, end up having their day. (Full disclosure: My girlfriend assisted on the show.)

High-wire artist Philippe Petit (with microphone) told us this afternoon - after the Tribeca Film Festival screening of Man on Wire, a documentary of his memoir - that he has been arrested hundreds of times, but it's usually for something fairly petty like trespassing, disorderly conduct or performing without a permit. The film follows his superior achievement, his "coup" of clandestinely rigging a wire between the top of the two tallest World Trade Center towers in August 1974 and dancing across them one morning. This is one of those moments in history that I've been fascinated by for years now. The latest film does a thrilling job of elaborating and expanding upon the feat that was such a touching part of Rick Burns' history of the trade center, "The Center of the World." That earlier film revealed Petit's walk in the clouds as the heartbreaking high point in the history of the buildings.

All references to 9/11 in Man on Wire, by James Marsh (in white shirt), are indirect and subtle: basically the appearance of airplanes at certain moments. Still, they are just enough. The film focuses on the joyful achievement. But that isn't to say it doesn't have dark undertones. Chiefly, the understanding that the clandestine preparations that Petit and his motley crew undertook to get him up there that morning 34 years ago has parallels with the terrorists who ultimately destroyed the towers and so many of their people. The secrecy, the planning, the obsession. I say this by no means to sully the work of Petit and his compatriots, which I would say ultimately added to the goodness in the world and this city, only to show how there is more in common between the towers' highs and lows than one might first imagine.

In both stories, I was struck by how Elena and Philippe were able to get other people to believe in their visions, however crazy they might seem.

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