Guinea Pig Solo
Brett C Leonard
The Public Theater's Shiva Theater, New York
Brett C. Leonard's new drama Guinea Pig Solo focuses on ex-soldier, Jose Solo, who, after a tour in Iraq, cannot readjust to civilian life back in New York. Loosely based on Georg Buchner's 1836 play Woyzeck, Guinea Pig Solo is an unforgiving, explosive work that forces its audience to accompany Jose Solo on his inevitable journey to self-destruction.
John Ortiz plays the tortured Solo. He's a veteran of the Iraqi front whose haunting memories of war result in flashbacks, nightmares and an inability to reconnect with the people he left behind. Combat has changed him irrevocably and as a result, tragically changes the lives of the people around him. Solo is tormented, haunted by images of death and destruction that he can't escape. Like a man possessed, he covers every inch of the stage, running on a "treadmill" that epitomizes his desire to outrun the past and conveys his "rehabilitation" at the hands of his doctor (Robert Glaudini). Dr. Kramer professes to want to help Solo but his inhuman experiments make Solo into a victim once again, and reinforce our belief that here is a desperate man running out of time. The experimentation that Solo is put through and numerous references to rats, learned behaviour, frogs and Darwinism show us that Solo is just a "guinea pig", a trapped animal struggling to survive.
Along his journey he is befriended by Charlie, the quintessential NY cop, an amusing and sympathetic performance by Richard Petrocelli. Charlie has his own brand of philosophy about life and tells Solo, "This is life - the good, the bad, the in-between".
Gary (Stephen Adly Guirgis), Solo's well-meaning friend, also tells him "you gotta learn not to think so much". But Solo can't stop thinking - about the horror of war, the breakup of his marriage to Vivian and the loss of communication with his son Junior (Alexander Flores).
Meanwhile Solo's wife Vivian (Judy Reyes), who has a restraining order out on her increasingly angry and irrational husband, is also trapped and unable to move on with her life. She can't understand how everything went so wrong and laments the loss of the man Solo once was and the breakdown of her family. Nikki (Portia) is wonderful as Vivian's upbeat friend. Delivering down-to-earth advice she provides much needed comic relief during the unremitting intensity of Leonard's play.
Ortiz gives a compelling performance that powerfully conveys the anguish that is Solo's life. However, he is so constantly angry and strident that it is hard to identify with a man who continuously screams his rage at the world. Perhaps a glimpse of the man he once was, would have allowed the audience to feel more sympathy. We don't get a real sense of Jose Solo before the war and how much his experiences have changed him. As a result we're not fully aware of how much has been lost.
Brett C. Leonard is best known for Scotch & Water, The Memory of Love's Refrain and Victoria. His play Roger and Vanessa has received staged readings at the LAByrinth's annual Barn Series Festival and at RADA as part of the America Now series. Roger & Vanessa received its premiere production at London's Latchmere Theatre in May. Leonard's feature film directorial debut Jailbait with Stephen Adly Guirgis premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, also in May.
Reviewer: Julie-Ann Marshall