On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Óscar Romero celebrated his final Mass in a small chapel in his native El Salvador. As soon as he finished his sermon, an assassin stepped out of the shadows and shot Romero in the chest, killing him.
Since that tragic day, Romero has become an icon of the social justice movement. He has long held a special place in the progressive pantheon: He championed the poor, he opposed violence, and he objected to a tyrannical government at the height of its “death squad” mania. Like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Romero was a martyr whose peaceful resistance has inspired generations since.
Among the people inspired was Costa Rican playwright Samuel Rovinski, who wrote the play “El Martirio del Pastor” (“The Shepherd’s Martyrdom”) in 1987. Rovinski wanted to tell the story of Romero’s final years – surely the most important of his life – as the archbishop was transformed from an orthodox clergyman to a de facto figurehead of Liberation Theology. The play was successful and well received, and for 27 years the script has lay dormant.
This month, the National Theater Company revives Rovinski’s play, and Romero’s biography again comes to life, this time starring acclaimed Costa Rican actor Andrés Montero. The production is big and enthusiastic. Director Luis Fernando Gómez has taken on a mammoth task, moving two dozen actors around a busy stage. Many of the performers play multiple roles, and nearly everyone appears in several scenes. The costume-changes are quick, the dialogue is dense, and the seriousness of the drama never lets up.
As an idea, “Pastor” is very moving, and revisiting the bloody history of El Salvador is a worthy enterprise. If those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, Romero’s biography is a profound cautionary tale everyone should hear. Meanwhile, Rovinski himself passed away in 2013, and there is no better homage to a playwright than to showcase his work.
For these reasons, “Pastor” deserves an audience. The National Theater Company attracts many of the finest performers in Costa Rica, and the production values are impressive: Pilar Quiros has designed a simple but effective set, and Carlos Escalante’s original score is somber and beautiful. The production uses archival video and photography to help illustrate El Salvador in the 1970s, and many of the images are gut-wrenching.
The bad news is that “Pastor” is a one-dimensional script, and the play is crushingly boring. At one hour and 45 minutes, “Pastor” runs without an intermission, so the production is only an endless series of leaden dialogues in nondescript locales. The characters have no personality, even Romero himself. Priests argue about politics, tempers flare, and peasants sob over rough-hewn caskets, but the script has all the emotional power of a wax museum. With character names like “Oligarch 2” and “Leader 5,” the play is full of talk about human rights but shows little actual humanity. Unnamed women wail about their miserable lives before getting shuffled offstage. The generals and businessmen guffaw like comic strip villains. Romero tells the audience directly how upset he is in amplified monologues. Without subtlety or subtext, the acting is practically animatronic.
Worse still, the play already exists in the shadow of “Romero,” one of the most acclaimed political films of all time, starring the inimitable Raúl Juliá. Rovinski’s play predates “Romero” by two years, and in 1987 the production was probably received as edgy and daring. But narrating a national epic is the specialty of cinema, and choreographing street battles and massacres in the confines of a theater is a recipe for melodrama. In movies, we watch violence unfold and leave the theater with haunting images. In live theater, we watch five actors get “shot,” but eventually their corpses have to stand up and walk offstage, ruining the moment.
Rovinski clearly put his heart and soul into “Pastor,” but future playwrights should take note: When recounting the lives of heroes, we needn’t reenact every moment. For nearly two uninterrupted hours, we learn nothing about Romero except that he wore glasses and liked to garden – and we learn nearly as much about Oligarch 2. Theater can be political and still be theater. Romero was a great man, but if drama is good for anything, it’s to demonstrate that he was a person first.
“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.