MISS MARGARIDA'S WAY, by Robert Athayde; directed by Kim Peter Novac; lighting and sound, Kim Peter Novac; set and costume design, Hugo Medrano. With Jane Lange.
At GALA Hispanic Theatre, Fridays through Sundays, until Oct. 18.
In "Miss Margarida's Way," an autocratic schoolmarm undertakes to impart wisdom and morality to a class of eighth-grade students, who just happen to be the members of the audience at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Not only is she a bully and a sexual hysteric, she is also a virtual torrent of misinformation. It would be wrong, though, to assume that the play's Brazilian playwright, Roberto Athayde, is concerned mainly with pedagogical abuses in today's world.
This intriguing one-woman play, on stage until Oct. 18, is a metaphor for life in any dictatorship -- school, apparently, being as good a microcosm as any. Like all dictators, Miss Margarida claims to want only the best for her students. But she makes no bones about the fact that blind obedience and passivity are the primary virtues she's looking to instill in her charges. Those who manifest a spark of independence, she threatens with a visit to the principal. "There are very few students Miss Margarida has already sent to the principal's office," she warns with barely camouflaged hostility. "None of them has ever come back."
In the course of two short classes (acts), Miss Margarida tackles such topics as history, ecology, biology and logic, and succeeds in making comic hash of all of them. But under the garbled instruction and her paranoid ravings lies a fierce will to turn human beings into sheep.
This provocative text is obviously an open invitation for a tour de force performance, and Estelle Parsons made Miss Margarida a shriekingly funny shrike when she performed the role in New York in 1977. At GALA, Jane Lange tries valiantly, but she has neither the power to sustain this exhausting monologue nor the address to play more than its broadest outlines. Garbed in a dull gray suit, her hair pulled back in an austere bun, Lange looks like a prison matron at an awards banquet, and she has a tight smirk and a know-it-all tilt of the head that are fine as far as they go. But where is the fever? The buried frustration? The cataclysmic rage? One gets the impression that Lange could double the size of her present performance and still fall short of the full dimensions of this terror, for whom the classroom is a kingdom, and chalk a veritable scepter.