downtownexpress.com

Volume 19 • Issue 15 | August 25 - 31, 2006

Now, if only Pinochet the butcher would disappear

Dawn McGee, Flora Diaz, Lena Armstrong, Leslie Meisel, Anne Connolly and David Gregory pull back the curtain on Pinochet’s Chile in “The Disappeared.”

By JERRY TALLMER

The Friend of the Disappeared — a fellow prisoner — says, looking back on it:

“They called her Goldfinch because she walked like some little bird. You know, kind of hopping, like she was going everywhere in a hurry. But what’s to be in a hurry about in Tejas Verdes?

“They would take her out every day [to interrogate her about her revolutionary boyfriend]. She would come back, silent, with that golden, transparent down on her skin bristling from the terror and the pain. She would fall down on the mattress, and while I held her, she would tell me in a quiet voice what they had said to her and had done to her … ”

The Disappeared herself relives it:

“ ‘Let’s go fifty-four. On your feet!’ I tried, but my legs let me down. I fell forward. The front of my face hit the stone floor. Then they kicked me. I felt the boots hit my ribs, my thighs, my butt …

“They tied me to a metal bed. They hung me by my hands and feet from a pole. They sent electric shocks through me. I was festering all over my body. I had pus in my eyes and my nose. My mouth was numb. I had no feeling in my vagina or in my hands or my feet. My body was covered by cigarette burns. ‘Talk, you sack of shit. Can’t you see the others have already told us everything. Talk! We’re running out of patience.’ ”

The Friend of the Disappeared sums up:

“So, yeah, they got rid of her. And nothing of her was ever found. Not a trace. Not one sheet of paper, not one breath, not one strand of hair. Not one flower to mark her passing. Not one crumb of bread to point out her path. Not one scream. Not one sigh.”

Multiply little Goldfinch by 3,000 — the estimated Disappeared in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, 1973-1990.

And Augusto Pinochet is still alive, still kicking, if under house arrest, as he closes in on his 91st year.

His torture prison was Tejas Verdes — Green Tiles, or Green Gables — and that’s also the name of the play by Fermin Cabal, one of Spain’s leading post-Franco writers, from which the above few lines are extracted. Richmond Shepard, who is producing and directing it in the onetime premises of the Vineyard Theater here, Second Avenue at 26th Street, has Americanized the title to “Disappeared,” which is of course evocative of that tense 1982 Costa-Gavras movie “Missing,” in which Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek are led on a wild goose chase searching for his son who has been swallowed up in the darkness of Pinochet’s Chile.

Brooklyn-born-and-bred Richmond Shepard, all-purpose man of theater, film, and television — he also paints and writes — is 77 now. Translator Rick Hite is in his 70s. “All us alte kockers, but I’m still dancing,” says Shepard with a wicked grin. He isn’t funny, however, on the subject of Augusto Jose Ramon Pinochet Ugarte.

“My feeling about the man? I would squash him like a mosquito. No, not a mosquito. Like the rat he is.”

It was similar convictions that got Erasmus Hall graduate Shepard expelled from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, many years ago.

“I was a premature civil-rights worker. Had the weird idea that blacks shouldn’t have to sit in the back of the bus, drink from separate water fountains, should even have the right to vote. The dean called me in. Said they were expelling me for being late for two classes. I said lots of people are late for two classes. He said: ‘We don’t want your kind heah, Shepard.’ ”

So Shepard came back home to Adelphi College, BA 1951, and 20 years later earned an MA in Theater Arts from Cal State, Los Angeles. By then he was working his head off on the West Coast as an actor in everything from “Kojak” to “The FBI” to “The Jeffersons” to the Ally McBeal Show; as a highly considered performer and teacher of mime; as producer/director of a wide variety of contemporary dramas; and as creator/operator of five adjacent theaters on a block in Santa Monica that would become the nucleus of what today is called Hollywood’s Theater Row.

He had to do all this to support his four beautiful blonde Shiksa-looking daughters, one of whom, soul singer Vonda Shepard, supplied the music for Ally McBeal & Co. “My father once said: ‘Marry a tall

Nordic.’ ” He also — “John Shepard, scientist, chemist, captain of industry, man of great culture” — thoroughly disapproved of son Richmond’s way of life “but when he couldn’t bribe me out of it, gave me help anyway. My mother, Gladys Marshall Shepard, was a psychiatric social worker, and my youngest daughter, Luara, has just become that.”

The tall Nordic ex-wife nowadays lives up in Maine, while Shepard — who came back to New York in 1987 “like a salmon returning to its spawning ground,” first to run the Harold Clurman and Samuel Beckett playhouses on our Theater Row, then to latch on as Critic-at-Large over WNEW radio of late and loving memory — this past April girded up for new adventure when “one of my spies told me” the former Vineyard (and, briefly, Dixon Place) was available for rent. “I saw ‘Flora the Red Menace’ there 18 years ago.”

“Disappeared,” entering previews September 7 toward a September 12 official opening, is the Richmond Shepard Theatre’s firstborn show.

He came across the play in July 2005 at a theater in Dublin that he thinks was called The Progress.

“I was conducting an improv workshop in Derry, dropped down to Dublin to see some theater, and there it was. All the accents were Irish. It knocked me out. Took me four months to get the rights. Wrote to the Society of Spanish Authors, and they finally sent me the name of Fermin Cabal’s U.S. representative.”

Shepard has never met Cabal. He doesn’t know why Cabal put the whole thing in the mouths of six women — The Disappeared, The Friend, The Doctor (a Pinochet fink), The Graveyard Caretaker, The Informer, and The Spanish Attorney (a worse fink) — played at the Vineyard by five women, evocative to that extent of a drama called “The House of Bernarda Alba” by an even more famous Spaniard — Federico Garcia-Lorca, murdered by Franco’s henchmen.

Or maybe Cabal had or has an acting company heavy on women?

“Yes, maybe. Why not? Though apparently in this particular case there was a woman doctor.”

This particular case? The Goldfinch was a single particular case? Out of 3,000 of the Disappeared whose faces are only known today to the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo?

“Yes, there are hints within the play that this was a real case. Also” — Shepard’s expression changes wryly – “there’s a slight hint in it that she may have been Jewish. I sniffed it when her friend is talking about the Goldfinch’s recipe for pickled-fish salad. Her family had some money. And Jewish girls often go for radical guys.”

Shhhhh! That dean of Emory University may, like Pinochet, still be alive. Wouldn’t want him to hear that. Too upsetting.

 DISAPPEARED. By Fermin Cabal, in an English translation by Rick Hite. Produced and directed by Richmond Shepard. With Flora Diaz (The Disappeared), Leslie Meisel (The Friend, also The Informer), Anne Connolly (The Doctor), Lena Armstrong (The Lawyer), Dawn McGee (The Graveyard Attendant), and David Gregory (on guitar). Enters previews September 7 toward a September 14 opening at the Richmond Shepard (formerly Vineyard) Theatre, 309 East 26th Street, (212) 262-6588.



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