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A “Ricardo Muti Moment” in Los Angeles:
The Mass Strike and the Arts

A brief review of the play, “Devil's Advocate”

by Harley Schlanger

April, 2011

“A commitment to theater, to real drama, at a time like this, is crucial for a free society.” So said playwright Donald Freed, following the premiere on April 1 in Los Angeles, of his play, “Devil's Advocate.” Freed made these comments during a “talk back” following the performance, during which he described the present situation in the U.S. as a period of “democratic fascism,” adding that the budget cuts in funding to the arts not only shut down the voices of the artists, but stifle discussion of crucial matters in the population as a whole.

Freed was followed by a friend from England, also a playwright, who described the cuts in the arts there as a “tragedy.” He said that theater is especially important, as it provides an opportunity to create a “community, for communication of ideas,” not just through the interaction between the actors on stage and the audience, but within the audience as well, and it is a community where the ideas of the dramatist are allowed to resonate, and find expression. He said he fears that civilized discussion is itself under attack, along with “the concept of public service,” given the budget-cutting underway. Theater, he added, can give form to the kinds of ideas needed in these times, in an unmistakable reference to the mass strike process evolving in the United Kingdom, following the Tory budget cuts. He concluded that the alternative to the community created by theater is the “individualism” that comes from “entertainment,” not just television, but computers, in which there is no forum for ideas at all, let alone any great ideas!

The discussion was reminiscent of the recent intervention by conductor Ricardo Muti, who used a stirring performance of “Va Pensiero,” from Verdi's “Nabucco”, to denounce cuts in the arts in Italy, and to rally the nationalism that is under attack by the post-Westphalian would-be dictatorship of the EU.

Freed's play, “The Devil's Advocate,” is a two-man play, offering Freed's account of the U.S. invasion of Panama by President Bush, Sr., in 1989. It takes place in the Vatican embassy, and the two characters are the Vatican Ambassador to Panama, Jose Sebastian Laboa, who was a leading Jesuit and one-time head of the “Inquisition” -- thus, his title, the “Devil's Advocate” -- and Manuel Noriega, played by actor Robert Beltran. Noriega had taken asylum in the Vatican embassy, following the bombing and strafing of Panama City by the U.S. military. The dialogue between the two focuses, in the first act, on Noriega's anger at the invasion, and his recounting the history of imperialism, up to the present-day U.S. Empire (sic). While the U.S. is reduced, by Freed, to being the successor to the British Empire, he does have effective attacks on the IMF and World Bank, the lack of regard for human life by the imperialist system, toward the Third World, and the role of Bush in drug trafficking, to fund the Contras.

The second act moves to the psychological manipulation of Noriega, by the Bishop, to convince him to surrender, as well as an attack on the role of the Vatican (the drug bank, Banco Ambrosiano, for example, is denounced), and the Jesuits, in particular. Though the drama bogs down a bit toward the end, overall the two actors, Beltran and Tom Fitzpatrick, sustain a lively dialogue, crackling with tension, which concludes with Noriega's surrender to the U.S., to stand trial in Miami. The play is presented by the Los Angeles Theatre Center, a Hispanic Company in downtown L.A., and will play through April.