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Theatre in Review: Notes on Killing Seven Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Board Members

Samora La Perdida, Christine Carmela. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

At this moment, it takes a performer with special nerve to stand up in front of an audience, waving a gun. Appearing in front of the curtain at Soho Rep, pistol in hand, Christine Carmela Herrero is Lolita, a Puerto Rican trans woman who plans to assassinate the members of the Financial Management and Oversight Board for Puerto Rico, aka PROMESA. An entity signed into law by President Obama to handle the island's problematic finances, PROMESA, Lolita notes, "imposes an unelected board of seven 'experts on economy' with deciding power over finances, budgets, essential service," admittedly with no success so far. Waxing philosophical, she adds, "Do we hesitate to kill our leaders because we're tired? Or are we tired because keep hesitating to kill our leaders?"

You can decide if such questions deserve answers; I can tell you that, in the wake of Buffalo, Chattanooga, Laguna Woods, and Uvalde, the opener strikes a sour note from which Notes on Killing Seven Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Board Members, a co-production between Soho Rep and The Sol Project, struggles to recover. Following a blackout, Lolita is discovered, passed out, on the floor of the PROMESA office in downtown Manhattan. Revived by the office's receptionist, she is startled to be wearing an outfit identical to the one worn by a Puerto Rican nationalist who shot up the House of Representatives in the 1950s. Clearly, more gunplay is in the offing.

The receptionist, an unnamed gay Nuyorican with a second career as a drag performer, tells Lolita she needs additional prepping before committing mass murder. (You've probably guessed by now that the play makes no pretense at naturalism.) He briefs her by impersonating members of the board, giving them drag identities. Thus, Andrew Biggs, Jr., of the American Enterprise Institute, becomes Andrea Baggs, "finance expert by day and by night an enthusiast of fine designer handbags filled with surprises!" José Ramón González, who left the board in 2020, is reinvented as Joséphone Ramonita González, dressed in judicial robes and sporting a plan to keep the island perpetually in debt. Not every character requires a gender switch: Chairman David A. Skeel, Jr., a University of Pennsylvania law professor, becomes Bishop David Silk, outfitted with a mitre and committing mildly lewd gestures with his crozier. And Carlos M. García, also retired from the board, is reimagined as Karlos Grace, a shirtless homeboy with male stripper moves.

The parade of parodies unrolls like the competition on a ballroom runway, the entire enterprise putting one oddly in mind of Jean Genet's The Balcony (another exercise in politics and roleplay). Whether wildly caricaturing these gray financial experts as drag divas makes any sense is open to question. Even more questionable is the fingering of living person as targets for assassination. Anyway, Notes on Killing... has other things on its mind, namely identity issues. Lolita, who has only recently transitioned, notes, "The journey of decolonization starts with the self!!!" The receptionist doesn't have a proper name, because, he says, "I haven't found? Haven't been satisfied? With any word that represents myself." (The punctuation belongs to the playwright, Mara Vélez Meléndez.) There's a line of thought running through the play about the difference between natural and performative behavior; attaining a certain kind of realness is seen as a necessary prelude to meaningful political action -- which, in this case, means shooting up the PROMESA boardroom.

What saves Notes on Murder... from being hopelessly offensive is its essential innocence, especially its tacit belief in the power of changing one's personal pronouns. Too bad that the characters' self-obsessions leave the larger question of Puerto Rico unaddressed. Instead of discussing bankruptcy or the failing power grid, we get Bishop Silk's plan to turn the island into a facility for conversion therapy. In the world of the play, all forms of oppression are essentially the same and are inextricably linked; the worst crimes involve blocking self-expression. Or, as the receptionist says, "Like...if the world doesn't allow us to know ourselves, to be our true, complete selves...We are really stupid to think we will get to know those who lead us."

It is, of course, entirely possible to believe that everyone has the right to self-determination in matters of gender identity and sexual orientation while recognizing that in building better systems of governance such issues may be of limited utility. Still, the play's muddled, naive politics are put over with considerable verve in David Mendizábal's production. And, even when the director could dial down the energy level to his profit, the commitment of Herrero and co-star Samora La Perdida remains unswerving. At the performance I attended, the actors started out awkwardly, stepping on each other's lines, but they soon settled in, with La Perdida at times reminding one of Billy Porter in his Prophet Jeremiah mode, denouncing this wicked world's status quo.

One great thing about Soho Rep productions is how often they introduce interesting new designers, and that's certainly the case here. Gerardo Díaz Sánchez's scenic design captures the terrifyingly antiseptic look of so many Wall Street waiting rooms, and Kate McGee's lighting switches effortlessly from an institutional wash to moments of disco fabulousness. Sadah Espii Proctor's sound design combines gunshots with pop classics like Jennifer Lopez's "Waiting for Tonight," Dolly Parton's "Nine to Five," and Madonna's "Like a Prayer." Acting as his own costume designer, Mendizábal provides a series of eye-poppers for the receptionist, including an all-pink ensemble, a Puerto Rican flag dress, and purple-and-gold bishop's robes.

A recurrent trope in Meléndez's text is that "two things can exist at the same time." Yes, indeed, but in this play, the hard questions -- territorial status vs. statehood or independence, a busted economy, race prejudice and/or white supremacy -- are obscured thanks to the characters' penchant for making a long-running political dilemma all about them. And, even in a fast-moving, turbocharged production such as this, the playwright's need to make travesties of all seven board members adds nothing to the overall argument. (Watching Lolita repeatedly plug them with bullets is no pleasure, either.) It's a funny thing: A play about the importance of personhood never seems to know what it is about. --David Barbour

(31 May 2022)

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