The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy Theater Review
In 1972 National Lampoon’s cover featured a version of the iconic poster portrait of beret-clad, longhaired Che Guevara’s face being hit by a cream pie, beneath the headline: “Is Nothing Sacred?” That issue of the satirical magazine also included an article entitled “Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries.” I suppose the same anything-goes irreverence animates playwright Peter Lefcourt and the world premiere of his anti-Marxist madcap mishmash The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy. (Trotsky’s own artistic sensibility was unorthodox; in 1938 he and Andre Breton co-authored the pro-surrealist Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art.)
Like Che, Trotsky — one of the heads of the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions — was an apostle of world revolution and of liberation in the developing world. In this play within a play within a play, Trotsky arrives in Coyoacán near Mexico City, where the ex-Bolshevik will live in exile with his wife Natalia. Dialogue alludes to the faction fight between Trotsky and his arch-nemesis, Josef Stalin, who — after the 1924 death of the Revolution’s leader, Vladimir Lenin — edged his rival out and, in Trotskyist parlance, established a bureaucratic dictatorship in a deformed workers state (that had some attributes of socialism).
Having lost the faction fight Trotsky was forced out of the U.S.S.R. and — somewhat like state-less N.S.A. leaker Edward Snowden today, who is likewise being offered sanctuary by left-leaning Latin American nations — was on the run, seeking safe haven. (The wandering Jew’s brief sojourn in France is dealt with in Alain Resnais’ 1974 film Stavisky, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, with Yves Peneau as Trotsky.)The great painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo interceded on the Trotskys’ behalf and arranged for them to find refuge in Mexico, which under Pres. Lázaro Cárdenas had a sort of New Deal type government that granted the revolutionary outcast political asylum.
Act I depicts the bohemian Diego and Frida welcoming the Trotskys in 1937 to her La Casa Azul, although I don’t recall this blue-walled house (now the Frida Kahlo Museum) being so named in Lefcourt’s comedy, which is more ahistorical than hysterical (not to mention heretical). The play’s premise provides plenty of fertile material, which Salma Hayek and company explored to great effect in the vastly superior, far more creative 2002 film Frida. Lefcourt merely uses actual annals for a springboard to the derring-do of his feverish imagination, which this Emmy Award-winning writer no doubt considers to be much more important. Facts, schmacts, in two acts!
All of the historical characters are caricatured, perhaps Diego, above all. With his faux Mexican accent vaguely reminiscent of Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa in 1934’s Viva Villa! Ovation Award-winning Joe J. Garcia’s reduces Rivera to a trigger happy buffoon who shoots first and asks questions later. I wonder how Chicanos and Mexicans will react to their brilliant muralist being played strictly for laughs as a clown?
Much is (disparagingly) made of Diego’s sex life, but this is true of the other historical figures depicted as well, along with the youthful hired help. Stereotypical “hot Latinos,” the gardener Jesus (Christopher Rivas) and cook/maid/model Guadalupe (Ashley Platz) never miss an opportunity for a tryst in the potting shed. In a curious bedroom scene, Mrs. Trotsky (here called Natalya Sedova and portrayed by Holly Hawkins, whose credits include Tim Burton’s movie Alice In Wonderland) handcuffs Leon (Joel Swetow, who likewise has heaps of stage and screen credits, including Alice) to the bedposts, a riding crop appears and a drawn curtain obscures their sadomasochism.
Lefcourt’s probably fanciful notion that a man who dedicated his life to liberating humanity indulged in S&M may strike some as ironic, others as specious, along with the idea that Trotsky, who led the Red Army, was somehow squeamish around firearms. (And Swetow’s Boris Badenov-like Russian-Jewish accent is thicker than the Iron Curtain. Oy vey, tovarisch!) In any case, when it comes to sex, Trotsky, that goateed old goat, appears to be the odd man out, as the putatively bisexual Frida (who is fetchingly played with great comic panache by the long-legged Murielle Zuker, who, I might add, has a lovely derriere), who is married to Diego, seduces Natalya Sedova.
This comedy, obviously, is much more concerned with its characters’ sex lives than, say, with a little thing like Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution (which I don’t believe is ever mentioned by name onstage). I am certainly not a sexpert on Trotsky’s private life, but according to the movie Frida and other sources, for what it’s worth (as if other people’s personal lives are any of our goddamned business) it was Trotsky (poignantly portrayed onscreen by Geoffrey Rush opposite Hayek) and Frida (much younger than Natalya) who had an affair.
This is believed (along, perhaps, with ideological differences) to have led to a falling out between Trotsky and Rivera. In any case, although the Trotskys are depicted onstage as living with Diego and Frida throughout the entire period of their Mexican exile, in 1939 the Trotskys moved to a nearby compound called “the little fortress.” I presume that Lefcourt would plead “dramatic license” to his confining the quartet under one roof, but I suspect that this playwright couldn’t give a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut about historical accuracy.
I actually enjoyed the first act of The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy. The work’s conceit is that a group of actors are putting on a play about Trotsky in Mexico, and they in turn mirror that drama’s revolutionary subject matter by rebelling against a strict playwright (played by the incredibly skinny, tall Greyson Lewis, who looks like he just stepped off the screen of a silent slapstick short and who, in a droll bit of casting, also plays Trotsky’s assassin). This is a clever plot device, and reminiscent of Peter Weiss’ brilliant 1963 drama Marat/ Sade, another play about the assassination of a revolutionary martyr and which is mentioned in Lefcourt’s script (Weiss also wrote 1969’s heartbreaking Trotsky in Exile). As part of their revolt against the overbearing author, the play within a play’s actors ad lib lines. However, being actors and not writers (this scribbler noted) their “ad libbing” is mainly or entirely in the form of quoting dialogue written for actors from other plays.
The first time this happens, as Trotsky quotes Chekhov at length, it’s imaginative, even ingenious. But in Act II, as the thesps continued to use the same theatrical device, reciting lines from William Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, channeling Marlon Brando, et al., ad nauseam, along with references to MacBeth (I mean “the Scottish play”!), the charm wore off, like a guest who has overstayed his welcome. The recurring dialogue diversions become repetitive, redundant, unrelenting, superfluous — and did I say they repeat themselves? — as actors flog a long dead rhetorical horse.
Just as this play titillates theatergoers with allusions to revolutionary politics, its self-promoting promise of being “sexy” is likewise dubious. Despite the fact that artists waged hard fought battles for the aesthetic freedom to depict sexuality on the page, onstage and onscreen in the 1960s, there is no frontal nudity per se here. Frida makes many references to her handmaiden-cum-model Guadalupe’s magnificent bosom, and the uni-brow painter browbeats her to bare her breasts two or three times, but each time Ms. Platz does so her back is to the audience. Likewise, Trotsky and Jesus’ genitalia are covered by a helmet, and when lovemaking ensues a coy curtain is usually drawn across the bedroom portions of the set (skillfully designed by Joel Daavid). There is a scene where some of the actors of the play within a play are backstage and disrobe down to their undergarments but for the most part this work’s lack of nudity, despite its ballyhooed “sexy” quality, is cowardly and a copout. At one point one of the characters declares: “Somebody has to get naked — it’s the theatre!” But apparently not in this production. It’s as if the Living Theatre never, well, lived. (Methinks it’s a case of “Paradise Later”?)
This pastiche parody is directed by Terri Hanauer, who collaborated with Lefcourt on 2012’s Mutually Assured Destruction. They may be amused by themselves and Trotsky’s notion of world revolution, but seriously folks, consider the fact that in just the past month or so we witnessed mass uprisings in Turkey and Brazil, not to mention what are reportedly the largest protests in human history in Egypt. Audiences would be far better served by a play that took a sober look at the ideal of and prospects for world revolution (certainly, in the Marxist parlance, the objective conditions exist) than by one mocking it and those who fought for freedom.
And finally, a word about the propriety (a word I suspect does not exist in Mr. Lefcourt’s lexicon) of making fun of the murder of any human being, let alone one as significant as Trotsky. The fact is that there is another treatment of Trotsky’s assassination in a comedy: In Czech director Karel Reisz’s 1966 British comedy Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, co-starring onetime real life Trotskyist Vanessa Redgrave, David Warner describes poor Trotsky’s elimination with sly comic effect. So it can be done — but it depends upon how and to what purpose. (See for yourself how this is depicted in the hilarious Morgan, Dear Reader. And BTW, Jacob Tierney’s 2009 movie The Trotsky is also quite humorous, while Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 Ninochtka starring Greta Garbo and 1940’s Comrade X with Hedy Lamarr, which both spoofed Soviets prove that parodying Bolsheviks can be amusing, even if from a bourgeois perspective.)
But Lefcourt’s rendition of poor Trotsky’s slaying is, like much of this mess, questionable. To be fair much of the audience seemed entertained by this spectacle and I suspect that the less one knows about the actual personages depicted the more one is likely to enjoy this slapped together slapstick bagatelle. Making light of an ice pick or modified alpen stock piercing the skull of a human being is no laughing matter. What is the team of Lefcourt & Hanauer’s next exercise in poor taste — 9/11, The Musical Comedy? (In Joseph Losey’s 1972 The Assassination of Trotsky Richard Burton plays the doomed title character, while Alain Delon portrays the assassin.) Brutally murdered by a Stalinist agent in 1940, the play makes no mention of the fact that Trotsky was eliminated at the height of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when Berlin and Moscow had a non-aggression treaty that for the most part sidelined worldwide Communist parties from the anti-fascist struggle. By assassinating Trotsky Stalin was, among other things, announcing to the world that the Soviet Union was renouncing its revolutionary heritage and that the Kremlin’s new czars had become “just one of the guys” and were now playing ball in the international game of realpolitik — Bolshevik principles be damned.
Lefcourt’s cream pie in the face of the old Bolshevik is the second assassination of Trotsky. As for Leon Trotsky’s liquidation in reality and in this botched staged version, to quote Marx in 1852’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “First time tragedy, second time farce.”
If you must: The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays 3:00 p.m. through July 28 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. For more info: (323) 960-7735.
Friday, 12 July 2013