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National Theater Company’s ‘Shepherd’s Martyrdom’ revives Salvadoran hero

September 17, 2014

When a gunman assassinated Óscar Romero in 1980, the archbishop of San Salvador became one of the most famous martyrs in world history. Other Catholic priests had championed the poor, criticized the Salvadoran government, and protested escalating violence, but Romero’s death resonated: He was shot while celebrating Mass in front of a congregation. Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Romero has since became an icon of social justice.

In 1987, the Costa Rican writer Samuel Rovinski Gruszco decided to write a play about Romero’s life. The result was a sweeping historical epic, “El Martirio del Pastor” (“The Shepherd’s Martyrdom”), which was produced by the National Theater Company. This was a provocative act: At the time, El Salvador was stuck in the middle of its bloody civil war, during which death squads massacred entire villages and innumerable Salvadorans fled the country or were “disappeared.” The actor Luis Fernando Gómez played the lead role.

This week, the National Theater Company revives the play after 27 years of dormancy. While the prolific Rovinski passed away last year, Gómez is picking up the reins – this time as director.

Like the 1989 biopic “Romero,” “El Martirio” endeavors to tell the story of Romero’s rise to archbishop and sudden conversion to Liberation Theology. The production requires 24 performers, short vignettes, and lots of scene changes. Years of events unfold onstage, and actors represent peasants, clergymen, soldiers and government officials. Romero is a curious personality, because he was famous for his conservatism until the assassination of his close friend Rutilio Grande. In this new production, the actor Andrés Montero will take on the dream role of Romero.

As a dramatic crash-course in Latin American history, “El Martirio” promises to be powerful and illuminating. The National Theater Company’s production contrasts sharply with last season’s “King Lear.”

In the words of Romero himself: “How are we going to reap love in our community if we only sow hate?” Given the state of world affairs these days, such common sense is worth revisiting.

“El Martirio del Pastor” continues through Oct. 28 at the Antigua Aduana, Barrio Aranjuez. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 6 p.m. ₡5,000 ($10). Info: National Theater Company website.

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