Monday, February 15, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of Claude Solnik's Pedro Castillo Is Innocent at Theater For The New City by Kathy Towson

This review of Claude Solnik's Pedro Castillo Is Innocent at Theater For The New City was written by Kathy Towson and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Pedro Castillo Is Innocent
Written by Claude Solnik
Directed by Danielle C.N. Zappa
Theater For The New City
155 First Avenue
New York, New York 10003
Reviewed 2/12/16

Pedro Castillo Is Innocent was co-produced by Theater For The New City and The Textile Company (one of its resident companies), which has in its Mission Statement the goal of "weaving" true stories into the theatrical works the company produces. I am always appreciative of any play that tries to make a social statement for change and I was very intrigued when I learned Pedro Castillo Is Innocent was inspired by a powerful and tragic true story. Claude Solnik, the playwright, worked as a reporter for The Villager and Downtown Express and covered the case of the wrongful 18-year imprisonment of Fernando Bermudez, who was falsely accused of murder. Bermudez's photo was picked by several witnesses who later recanted but it took until 2009 for Bermudez to finally be declared "innocent." I enthusiastically prepared myself for what I was about to see and was further encouraged by the clever atmosphere created by Alex Vartanian (Lights and Sound) as I took my seat. Chains clanging and the haunting sound of a clock ticking appropriately underscored the show prior to it starting and between scenes.

The apparent root of the problem and the reason stated in the program as to why it took so long to get Bermudez exonerated is that "prosecutors refuse to admit their mistakes." However, the play itself did not go into the details of the actual case to sufficiently explain why multiple appeals courts, with full knowledge of the recants, continued to deny his applications and motions to overturn his conviction. We are also left in the dark regarding the specifics of the efforts made on Bermudez' behalf. Rather than offer the audience repetitive flashbacks of the appeals and denials, it might have been more interesting had the play been written to include characters playing real-life people who were essential in helping Bermudez get out of prison, such as Barry Pollack, who took on the case pro bono, Maryann Dibari, the defense attorney, and Mike Gaynor, the NYPD homicide detective). The multiple flashbacks to the appeals process became predictable, repetitive and anti-climactic due to insufficient information and build up leading to each appeal.

Pedro Castillo (played by John Torres) insists on his innocence despite everyone's pleadings (including his wife, played by Christine Copley) that he "just admit his guilt," which, in the play, the parole board kept insisting was "the beginning of rehabilitation" that would expedite his release. However, sticking to his principles, he refuses to say he did something he knows he didn't, and, predictably, the Parole Board continues to deny his release. We feel his frustration, not due to our empathy for his plight and denied appeals, but rather because we have no idea why the appeals are being denied. This is missing information the characters, and not the audience, seem to have. Therefore, the frustration and the tragedy of each denial had little to no emotional impact for the audience.

It is unfortunate that even the scenes with his attorney (in the performance I saw Kimberly Gomez, stepped into the part) don't give the audience much clarification. It seemed unrealistic that during every meeting between Angela, the attorney, and Pedro, Angela seems to have been given "actor business" by the director to fill out forms and check files instead of the more plausible scenario of focusing on her client and knowing, without needing to refer to her papers, that his appeal had been once again denied. Additionally, it would have been good to be educated as an audience member, as to what Angela was specifically trying to do in her capacity as his lawyer. So many of the technicalities of the appeals were skimmed over, which, if provided, would have added some insight for the audience and made the play more engaging. The direction by Danielle C.N. Zappa also did not give the two actors room to explore the more-than-professional connection alluded to by Mrs. Castillo; namely, that Angela was developing feelings for her husband (which would have added a very interesting dimension to the story - even if taking artistic license and departing from the actual real-life happenings). As a result, when Gwen Castillo confronts Angela towards the end of the play with "just admit you love him too," it was not based on anything we observed in the writing or directing.

Much of the directing seemed to have missed the opportunity to create these connections. When the wife and daughter Kaela (played by Samantha Masone) visit Pedro in prison, they profess their love and the fact that they miss him and yet, when they go to say goodbye, even in the early days of visitation (before believable emotional distance could set in), the goodbyes are portrayed as though the young actors were shy about engaging in an actual physical touch or kiss. [Research into prison visitation revealed that for spouses/family, a kiss goodbye is permissible.]

The breath of fresh air in this production was Michael H. Carlin, who played Pedro Castillo's fellow inmate, Santos. The actor was very connected to his character's emotions and intentions. He played the role with a realism and conviction that made me truly fear him when he threatened Pedro. However, he also made me laugh with him, and even empathize with him, in the final monologue,

A great deal of time was spent on the fact that Castillo did a lot of reading (met with the unbelievable ignorance of the Guard (played by Michael J. Shanahan) who apparently never heard of Moby Dick (even though he knew of Dostoevsky -- really!!?) Although the Guard confesses at the end that he was just feigning ignorance, it is never explained why.

Much is revealed in a final set of monologues that were the saving grace of the show. They exhibited the potential writing talent of the playwright, which was unfortunately not fully evident throughout. During these final monologues, the actors connected the varying unexplained elements of the piece, and finally, its message and intentions were made clear. I just wish the rest of the play had given us a more in-depth view and insight into what this family and this man had really gone through instead of trying to "lecture us" and "connect the dots" regarding what the entire play was trying to say, using "wrap up" monologues encapsulated in fortune cookies handed out only after the main meal had already been served.

The exchanges between the wife and daughter are superficial and mundane (the wife had to plow her own driveway; the daughter wants a cell phone) throughout until, again, at the end, we FINALLY hear from both how difficult this separation has been and, unfortunately, by then, it is too late to develop a real sense of caring for the plight of these characters. The program states that Crystal Bermudez and Fernando Bermudez were married in prison AFTER he was convicted. This would have added another level to the relationship if revealed in the writing. Additionally, the fact that Bermudez was incarcerated at 22 years of age was missed in the acting, writing, and directing. John Torres appears to be a much older Pedro Castillo throughout, even in flashbacks - another missed opportunity for the audience to go on a young man's transitional journey, and thereby build empathy over the course of the two hours and see how prison life actually aged him. John Torres (as Pedro Castillo) appears to me to have been miscast in the lead role.

The time that could have been devoted to this character exploration was given to the appearance in dreams of the "Liberty" character (played by Stephanie Sottile). Here, it appears the director employed her own background in dance to have this character "dance" around his cell - a confusing and distracting action. I understand that Liberty was supposed to be a symbol for a sometimes elusive and hard to gain "sense of freedom," but I found it personally offensive and question why this character needed to be portrayed as a sexy (as Ms. Sottile describes herself in her bio) "manipulative nymph." The way in which this character was written and/or directed added nothing to the plot. Again, a missed opportunity to show, via truly intense dreams, the anguish, and despair that Bermudez must have felt, or insights into the true harshness of his surroundings with some introspection on the part of the Castillo character.

It was evident the playwright has a varied pen - sometimes with obvious and disappointing, overused cliches like "this is shit on a shingle" or "what do I look like, a mango tree?" and then delighting and surprising us with brilliant characters, like Santos, truly beautiful imagery in the poem with the verse, "No rain falls inside prison walls..."; clever lines like "we are all in prisons"; "you can't unscramble eggs, you just have to get new ones"; or great insights like "memories keep running away, let them come to you."

Although I felt the production missed the mark in many regards and failed to take advantage of the opportunity to take us on an emotional journey, having read the statistics on false imprisonment, this is a story that definitely needed to be told. I was moved by the true-life history and anguish that the Bermudez family endured and from which Pedro Castillo Is Innocent was born. I only wish their story had been told better.

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