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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Shrake’s “Pancho Villa” A Case of Unearned Grandeur Austin AUSTIN SCREENWRITER and former sports pundit Edwin Shrake has turned his hand, at least temporarily, to the very different medium of live theater. He has written and co-produced a two-hour drama called “Pancho Villa’s Wedding Day,” which ran from January 6 through January 22 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center in Austin. Pre-production hoopla regarding Shrake’s play was intriguing. The coproducer and principal investor was Nick Kralj, owner of Austin’s Quorum Club, with other investors coming from the ranks of the city’s cultural booster elite. The premiere of the drama, according to Kevin Phinney of the Austin American-Statesman, was to be “a starstudded gala of Hollywood and New York proportions,” where “local luminaries will mingle with stars, producers and filmmakers, all anxious to see the writer’s stage debut.” Phinney hinted that the play would go on tour following its Austin opening, with stagings possible in New York. San Antonio, and Mexico. Most intriguing, of course, was simply the fact that one of Willie Nelson’s old Lone Star buddies, a homegrown writer of unprofound movie was making the leap to a stage production, where want of profundity is harder to disguise than on the silver screen. What did this mean? Had there been an epiphany in Mr. Shrake’s life a searing new perception of the human condition that could be expressed only through the force and immediacy of live theater? Shrake added to the intrigue with a remark he made to Phinney in the American-Statesman: “The reason that Pancho Villa’ is a play where all the other scripts became movies is that Ray Reece is the author of The Sun Betrayed and other works of journalism, fiction, and drama. By Ray Reece all those others were written for money this one’s written for love.” Had Shrake discovered that he loved Pancho Villa? If so, why? The play doesn’t answer that question, nor any other question of substance regarding either Villa or the human condition, either in our own troubled era or in revolutionary Mexico of 1916 but especially not in our own era. This is a pity, for Shrake’s apparent purpose in the play is laudable. He seems to be exploring the concept and persona of hero: what goes into the making of one, and what can we learn from the study of a hero that will be of value to those of us living ordinary, unheroic lives in a period of history that is staggeringly devoid of authentic hero figures? Shrake sets an explicit tone for this inquiry with an opening soliloquy by Pancho Villa himSelf \(played by Rodney and battlesmoke, mounted imperiously on a plaster stallion, from which he dismounts to implore the audience to join him now in the glorious adventures that we are about to behold the adventures of war. We can all be heroes tonight, Villa proclaims, thumping his chest with its crossed bandoliers and lifting his eyes for divine benediction. Whereupon he draws his pistol, whirls and fires at an unseen foe as the stage goes dark and the heavy plaster stallion rolls backward whence it came an expensive, motorized prop that does not appear again. I wince in my seat at this early linking of heroism with military swagger and mayhem. It seems to inflict a wound in Shrake’s protagonist from which he will be taxed to recover even by demonstrating other noble properties of character historically associated with classic dramatic heroes. Except for Charles Bronson groupies and jingoistfc Reaganauts, there is no way to package such a fiction of heroism in the ominous year of 1984, with the human species trembling on the brink of self-extermination via socialized mass murder in the guise of wars both declared and undeclared. Alas, the next few scenes of the play diminish still further the likelihood of saving grace for Shrake’s Pancho Villa. It is now that we discover the meaning, such as it is, of the “Wedding Day” in the play’s title. Among the items on which we feast our hearts in this sequence is a pile of dead “Mexicans” lying crumpled on the stage victims, we assume, of General Villa’s heroics in the sight of God. Then we observe a pair of Mexican peasant women fretting about the loose ends in their lives while casually picking the dead men’s pockets. Enter General Villa, suave and selfpuffed though dusty from battle, who awes the hell out of the peasant ladies. With one of them, named Flora \(played straight to the point: is she married? No, she says, cow-eyed, her breast enlarged by the wallet she has lifted from the corpse nearby. Terrific, says Villa with a Spanish accent: she will become his bride at once. No matter that Villa is already married to a “real wife,” as he calles her proudly in a later scene – a wife who in fact will dispatch Flora from the stage like a pesky roach, just as she has dispatched other of the General’s concubines \(whether with or without children or pensions is not take this maiden Flora to be his wedded wife, and so, when the priest has left, do Pancho and Flora descend to the connubial couch for the flabbiest sex/love scene perhaps ever staged in Austin. TWENTY MINUTES into the drama, therefore, we are burdened with a “hero” who struts like a peacock and loves to play Marines, who shows no sign of compassion or remorse at the corpses of peasants heaped on his battlefield, who sanctifies his warrior’s lusts with illicit weddings to women whom he discards 18 FEBRUARY 24, 1984