José Febus and Andrés Munar inActs of Mercy: passion-play
(Photo © Sandra Coudert)
José Febus and Andrés Munar in
Acts of Mercy: passion-play
(Photo © Sandra Coudert)
Thanks to Mel Gibson's bloody film The Passion of the Christ, many have come to think of the medieval theatrical tradition of the passion play in terms of violence. And there's plenty of that in Michael John Garcés's Acts of Mercy: passion-play: fistfights, a son almost throwing his father off of his deathbed, and a tryst of sado-masochistic sex. In the world of this play, "passion" takes the form of rage, resentment, lust, and ultimately forgiveness.

While the father, Nestor, lies on his deathbed, most of his family searches for ways to avoid visiting him during his final hours. Jaime, the oldest son, distracts himself with sex and moneymaking. Only Eladio, the youngest son, dutifully stays by the bed -- until his half-brother and a cousin drag him off to a strip club. But none of their attempts at finding diversion go as planned. Before the evening is over, they'll be loitering on curbs, wandering aimlessly down streets, lying unconscious on a barroom floor, and lashing out at the most helpless targets.

The decidedly raunchy sex scene between Jaime and Arabella, a young woman from the neighborhood, is sure to provoke some audience members. While it's performed entirely in the nude, it's not the substance of the scene that is so transgressive; rather, its most disturbing aspect is the complete lack of warmth between the characters. Indeed, the act appears so joyless that you begin to wonder why they entered into an affair to begin with.

Staying true to the Catholic overtones of the play, sex herein in always an act to be feared, bringing about feelings of guilt and shame and memories of one's departed mother. The boys ogle the strippers mainly to demonstrate their masculinity, and they wind up fighting with each other to prove themselves. As a result, the play's few intimate moments, which come toward the end, are like water after a day in the desert. The author tries to make points about the Christian moral regarding the healing power of mercy, but he does so heavy-handedly; the constant attitudinizing of the main characters is alienating after a while. Similarly, Garcés writes much of the dialogue as short, staccato sentences peppered with obscenities, and this eventually has a wearing effect. It's as if somebody tried to compose a symphony for only a bass drum.

Fortunately, the cast does quite well with the material. Bryant Mason shows his versatility, portraying the aloof and macho Jaime just as well as he portrayed a self-indulgent, neurotic writer in Kissing Fidel earlier this season. The beautiful Veronica Cruz convinces as Arabella. Andrés Munar brings refreshing vulnerability to the play's most demanding role; his Eladio falls out with family and friends, finds himself bruised and helpless, yet the actor resists the temptation to harden the character. Proving that there is no such thing as a small role, Jenny Maguire is -- of all things! -- charming as the stripper. Finally, José Febus provides some of the production's most moving moments from Nestor's deathbed.

Gia Forakis directs smoothly yet does not hold back in presenting the play's more shocking moments. Robin Vest's minimalist set design creates the many different worlds of the play with the use of only a raked stage, a few props, and blue neon lights that evoke both salaciousness and septic cleanliness. Although the visual images are sometimes stunning, they would have been better if rendered in a slightly warmer palette. The same can be said of the play itself.