The one-person performance by Eliana Lopez is brilliant theater — and politics

Eliana Lopez talks with fans after the show
Eliana Lopez talks with fans after the show

 

By Tim Redmond

JUNE 1, 2015 – Most of the political pundits in town shook their heads when Eliana Lopez, the wife of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, announced she was doing a one-person show about the events that nearly destroyed her husband’s career.

Terribly risky, they said. Why bring this whole awful moment back into everyone’s consciousness? What good could that possibly do?

Well, I saw the show (“What is the Scandal?”) this weekend at the Mission Cultural Center, and it’s pretty clear they were all wrong.

I’m not a theater critic, but just as a pure performance, it was outstanding – moving, funny, at times riveting.

As a political act (and I have no idea if she meant it to be a political act) it was brilliant.

In fact, if every voter in town saw the show in the next few months, Mirkarimi’s chances of re-election would soar.

The show, mostly in Spanish with English subtitles, tells Eliana’s story in a way she was never allowed to do in any of the legal or political venues where the original drama played out.

She plays all the characters, and you can tell why she was such a successful telenova actress in Venezuela – she’s incredibly expressive. I speak no Spanish, but could almost figure the story out just from the emotions, the movement, and the looks on her face.

The remarkable thing is that she blames nobody (well, except “Mr. Lie,” who wears glasses and a mustache and was running the city at the time of this “fictional account based on real events.”)

She does take some artistic license, telling the audience, for example, what she wishes she told her neighbor, the one who put this all in motion by calling the police.

But her description of Mr. Lie telling the sheriff that he has to submit and resign immediately — or accept the label of “wife beater” that will follow him for the rest of his life … that’s real. That actually happened. It wasn’t just Mr. Lie; he’s a composite. There were other city officials who passed on the message. But the threat was part of the politics of this story.

Mostly, though, it’s a personal tale, of a Latino woman who falls in love with a Gringo politician, tries to decide whether to leave a comfortable life and career in Venezuela to go to San Francisco (where, it turns out, her lover has a small apartment, an old beat-up Jeep, and nowhere near the lifestyle she was used to), and how to build a marriage and a family when the two partners didn’t speak the same language.

It’s really funny seeing her portray Ross Mirkarimi as a klutz who can’t dance, even at his own wedding reception, and doesn’t know how to celebrate Christmas.

It’s painful to listen to her talk of how homesick she felt, how hard it was to shift from a star of stage and screen to a politician’s housewife – and how easy it was for a neighbor to befriend her – and, she says, manipulate her emotions.

From the performance, we get a much deeper understanding of the roots of the incident in which Mirkarimi grabbed her arm, leaving a bruise. In couples therapy, she relates, Mirkarimi broke down and said that when he was a boy, his mom took him away from his father – whom he never saw again.

Which might explain why he didn’t want to see his wife, who was clearly unhappy with him and their SF life, take their son to Venezuela.

Why did she make the video? Because she was worried about a divorce, because she was pissed — and because, she says, her neighbor, who said she was a lawyer, convinced her that it was the only way an immigrant woman would stand a chance in a custody battle against an American politician.

She doesn’t spare Mirkarimi, who comes off as someone who didn’t adapt easily to the role of a father and had a hard time reconciling life in the eternal political campaign to life in a family. Frankly, he comes off as a guy who could be a jerk (although that isn’t a crime). She doesn’t pretend there weren’t real issues in their marriage. She doesn’t spare herself, either; torn between the promises she made to her husband, her fear of legal retribution in the US, and her deep identity as a Venezuelan (who, let’s remember, had a pretty nice life there before she met Ross), she struggles emotionally. And we see it all, played out onstage.

But overall, she suggests that a lot of the people who were supposedly defending her interests were patronizing and never listened to her side of the story – and that the political and legal system utterly failed an immigrant woman and damaged her family.

Okay, she and her brother wrote the play, and she performs it. It’s just one side of the story.

But we have heard all the other sides, over and over, and it’s refreshing to hear this perspective.

The politics of the show are equally remarkable. The message it sends is that Eliana Lopez, the victim in the legal case, is left wondering: What is the Scandal?

The show continues this weekend at the Mission Cultural Center. You can buy tickets ($22) here.