It’s safe to say that dedicated theater-goers wouldn’t mind seeing more richly themed dramatic offerings like the Schoolhouse Theater’s beguiling production of “The Mask of the Jaguar King.”
Described by the producers as “Part battle of angels, part ghost story, part ritual dance, using indigenous and original sound landscapes with live music,” it is now on stage at the Croton Falls theater, playing weekends through April 23 (schoolhousetheater.org; 914-277-8477).
Faced as we are these digital days with images washing across screens of all sizes, plus the reclusive obsession of binge-watching, the intimacy, immediacy and electricity of live theater grows more appealing as a flesh-and-blood antidote to electronic entertainment. That’s one good reason there is a groundswell forming for local live entertainment. It’s spreading and drawing crowds.
Walking into the Schoolhouse Theater, the audience instantly is thrust into the recesses of a remote jungle in Guatemala in June 1933.
Our real-world state is willingly suspended by the painstaking detail and artistry of a campsite setting in the shadow of the forbidding facade of an ancient Mayan temple. We see a makeshift brick stove, lantern, suitcase and other totems of the time. The set design’s air of authenticity wafts across the audience.
The crown jewel is the jade- and onyx-studded mask of the Jaguar King. The priceless artifact is the prize in a tug-of-war pitting the witty, bull-like Quetzel against the disarming rope-a-dope style of Sophia, who gives as well as she gets. The two have entirely different reasons for coveting the mask. Sophie sees a key to unlocking an ancient culture and peoples. Quetzel sees a way to unmask a sacred myth that belies ugly truths about a despot.
At times, it feels like a Disney set piece, with monkey sounds and other ambient sound effects. Most welcome at regular intervals is the virtuoso Latin music guitar-playing of Peter Calo. His credentials are solid gold, having played with everyone from Carly Simon and Andrea Bocelli to Willie Nelson and Leonard Bernstein. The only cavil in this corner about the incredible Mr. Calo is that we don’t see and hear more of him. He adds wonderfully to the show’s dream-like spell that it casts on the audience.
Schoolhouse’s compact, 99-seat black box space is ideally scaled for this production, directed by Bram Lewis with verve and vitriol, which make for some explosive declarations of independence.
Conflict is the heart and soul of all drama. At the heart of “Jaguar King” is the stark contrast between its only two characters: Sophia (Meghann Garmany) and Quetzal (O.V. Daniels).
She is a tightly wound, frosty archaeologist from Manhattan who is all business and focused on bringing back priceless artifacts from a dig. He is a passionate revolutionary who is intent on spiriting away those very same artifacts, which to him represent oppression and familial tragedy.
As the press material more fully explains, “‘The Mask of the Jaguar King’ is a religious mystery pitting the politics of imperialism against the desires of the heart,” press notes state. “In 1933, a battle of the sexes breaks out when an American archaeologist finds herself stranded at the site of a Mayan temple with a dangerous Hispanic revolutionary intent on stealing priceless ancient artifacts. As they slowly unmask each other’s dark personal secrets, it remains unclear who is the real outlaw? To whom does history belong? And does the value of preserving the past justify the injustices of the present?”
The character of Sophia, says playwright Stuart Warmflash, is modeled after 1930s archaeologist Tattiana Proskouriakoff. Quetzel represents the rise of the outraged underclass, ruled by the heavy hands of oppression and exploitation. It was a time of colonial expansion into Central America, and, to native revolutionaries like Quetzel, imperialism was the curse of evil empires wanting to tame and harness the working class in vulnerable nations. He understands the laws of the jungle and unabashedly uses them as his survival kit.
As Quetzel, the salt-of-the-earth, cocksure protagonist of the piece, O.V. Daniels is a theater goer’s gift. His is a masterly performance of power and nuance. One minute he’s railing rabidly against “those corporate bastards the United Fruit Co.,” and the next minute he is exuding other-worldly spirituality.
Meghann Garmany effectively cools down and counters her nemesis with swan-like elegance, although, despite appearances, life for her isn’t all sweetness and light.
Mr. Warmflash has given his feisty creation some choice observations, even epigrams, like, “The law is whatever those in power decide it is.” Or, “There is no God. Only the divinity of a gun.” I call them Quetzel’s Quotes.
His mischevious and growling persona comes through con brio when he says to the stuck-up scientist, “It may surprise you to know we have schools in this part of the world.”
Another zinger is “You Americans have such small vision.” Therein lies a persistent undercurrent of the writer’s theme: Things are not always as they seem. America certainly is a land of opportunity. Yet, that privilege can bleed over into self-delusion about how omnipotent and omniscient we are. We may think we understand foreign cultures from a safe remove, but the final arbiters of our understanding are the people who live there, like Quetzal. To him, we are boorish interlopers, the proverbial bull in a China shop.
The play’s production notes tell us that “The Jaguar King history, the scepter, and the mask are fictional, but loosely based on the region’s folklore and archaeological history.”
In other local theater news, the compelling drama “Rabbit Hole,” by David Lindsay-Abaire, is being performed April 28-May 7 at United Methodist Church in Shrub Oak by YCP TheaterWorks. It features P.J. Glazer, Phyllis Kirigin, Kyan Muendell, Karen Symington Muendell, Ralph Vandamme and Donna L. White. For tickets: ycptw.org or 1-800-838-3006. For more info: 914-528-8704.
Bruce Apar is chief content officer of Pinpoint Marketing and Design, a Google Partner Agency. Its Adventix division helps performing arts venues, including the Schoolhouse Theater, increase ticket sales. He also is an actor, a community volunteer and a contributor to several periodicals, including Westchester Magazine. Follow him as Bruce the Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.