Swetow and Zuker Play Trotsky and Kahlo

24 Jun
June 24, 2013

Frida Kahlo is flirting outrageously with Leon Trotsky as they enter from the garden. “Where’s Natalya?” he asks uneasily, as if summoning his wife will ease the sexual tension. “She’s upstairs with Diego (Rivera),” Frida responds. And so this merry ménage a quatre rolls on, as we await the anticipated denouement in the premiere of The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy, Peter Lefcourt’s new play, produced by Theatre Planners at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. It’s from the same team that presented Mutually Assured Destruction at the Odyssey last year. Murielle Zuker as Frida Kahlo looks enough like the famous Mexican artist to be her doppelganger, even before she dons the single eyebrow. With her hair rolled around her head in a fat braid, she could pose for any of Kahlo’s self-portraits. “Maybe it’s just me, but I think the unibrow is sexy,” Zuker says. “Not for life, of course, but in this play it’s fashioned to the shape of my face and comes to a sharp little ‘v’.” The play is sexy, too, she adds, with all kinds of affairs cropping up between the characters that history never recorded. “The play is a mixture of Noises Off and Marat/Sade”, Joel Swetow inserts. “It’s a comedy, after all.” (Swetow as Trotsky, acts out a prolonged death scene that would do James Cagney proud.) “The play isn’t about the assassination,” he continues. “It’s about the actors taking over a play about an assassination.” “The play is about revolutionary characters,” Zuker explains, “and so the actors become revolutionary while doing a play about a revolution.” In taking over the play, the actors insert familiar dialogue from all the other plays they’ve acted in, and the audience can guess where the lines come from. For example, one of Trotsky’s many lines as he twitches to a slow death, is “’Tis a far far better thing I do…” The play itself is set in the Blue House, the home in Mexico City that Kahlo sometimes shared with her on-again, off-again husband, Diego Rivera. It is to that home that Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalya eventually came to stay after Trotsky was removed from power in the Soviet Union. As a key member of the Bolshevik Party, a supporter of Marx and Lenin and a founder and commander of the Red Army, he was expelled from the Communist Party and exiled by Joseph Stalin, who then succeeded in having him and most of his family killed. Trotsky is known for his theory of permanent revolution and his support for proletarian internationalism, but the pros and cons of his evolving political viewpoints are not crucial to the development of this quirky comedy, and the denizens of Kahlo’s household do not engage in these polemics. For Swetow, an actor trained at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, his 10 years onstage touring with the National Shakespeare Company were “a great time,” but by the end of it he was “poverty-stricken.” He started taking roles in Hollywood and also joined Glendale’s A Noise Within company, where he spent the next 20 years in “the greatest roles of my life” — including Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Shylock in Merchant of Venice, Dr. Dorn in The Seagull and Malvolio in Twelfth Night. He also co-starred in Antony and Cleopatra at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. “A Noise Within, now in Pasadena, became my primary focus,” he says He is one of its resident artists. But he is currently relishing the fact that — in contrast to the writers of classical plays – playwright Lefcourt is present during the preparations for the upcoming Assassination. “To do a new play with the writer present is a revelation,” he says. “It makes for a challenging collaboration.” “I don’t think there should be a line drawn between comedy and drama,” Lefcourt says. “Reality and dramatic truth are necessary for comedy.” The fact that Lefcourt’s wife, Terri Hanauer, is directing the production is an added plus, according to Zuker. “Terri is a dream come true,” Zuker says. “She’s loving and fun and the production will share that. I hope it’s as much fun for the audience as we’ve had rehearsing it.” Zuker, who graduated from UCLA in theater, was born in Chile. Her father is a molecular neurobiologist, and her mother is a linguistics professor and painter. Zuker credits her father with supporting her wish to act. “He recognized that I felt the same way about acting as he felt about science,” she says. And so, she adds, “I haven’t had to have a day job, and I get to be picky about my

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roles.” One of her favorite roles is Lady Macbeth in “the Scottish play.” “I’d like to play that part at least 10 more times before I get too old,” she says. She is also adept at improvisation. She tells of her role in a movie thriller shot in Italy. “The producers never showed the actors the script,” she explains. “We were given the plot points, but were left to improvise the rest. It was like a treasure hunt. There were three cameras shooting 12 hours a day.” The film was called Murder in the Dark and was memorable for its extravagant use of fake blood. It was never finished, she says, because the producers ran out of money, but she has hopes that it will be resurrected and completed in some hoped-for future. Swetow, in addition to his classical work, also has a long history with the Star Trek franchise on TV. He has played Ambassador Thoris, a “blue guy with antennae that were manipulated by someone lying at my feet, out of camera range,” he says, a merchant named Yog the Yridian, the Avatar named Alpha in 10 episodes of Charmed and First Chancellor Valis of Kelowna on Langara in Stargate. He portrayed a Cardassian commander in Deep Space Nine and in a video game. “I was a Cardassian before Kim,” he says with a laugh. He was also one of eight voices that were layered to provide the rich tones of the Borg Commander, the big guy with the furrowed forehead. “I’ve been fortunate to vary it up,” he says. “I’ve played an Israeli soldier, a Moroccan cab driver, a Russian gangster…” as well as costarring in such films as Three Ninjas, Alice in Wonderland, Son of an Afghan Farmer, and starring in Vartan LLP and something called Chicxulub, to name a few. Meanwhile, he and Zuker are looking forward to the opening of Assassination this week. Zuker is excited because her family, including her mother, grandmother, and aunt, are flying up from Chile for opening night. “My grandmother and aunt don’t speak a word of English,” she notes with trepidation, “but there’s something for everyone in this play, and I’m sure they’ll understand and enjoy what’s going on.” The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Opens Saturday at 8 pm. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm, through July 28. Tickets $25-$30. www.plays411.com/trotsky. 323-965-7735. Photo: The Assassination cast by Ed Krieger Reprinted from LA Stage Times, published June 21,2013

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