Revised from its previous version (reviewed in 2001 by the New York Times as a production-in-progress, and even then the reviewer mentions it’s already a decade old) Raft of the Medusa hasn’t quite caught sight of land. Titled after the French Romantic painting of the same name, the play tells the story of a group of AIDs-positive folks who meet for group therapy every week.
What is the metaphor that Pintauro is trying to put together between his play, the AIDs crises, and the events that inspired Gericault’s painting? The survivors on the Medusa resorted to cannibalism in order to survive, and there is a certain level of devouring one another that takes place over the course of the group session; the shipwreck survivors adrift on a raft might indeed feel a kinship with HIV-positive individuals, facing a drastically shortened lifespan with no hope. There is blocking, particularly near the climax of the production, which reflects the titular reference, and the general feeling of helplessness suffered by shipwreck victims is, in an abstract way, compared to the members of the group as they await rescue from their disease at the hands of scientists, activists, or miraculous occurrence.
This feels like a good idea with somewhat clumsy execution, but it’s difficult to tell if it’s the unwieldiness of the production or the sheer amount that has been packed into this group session. One character is a Vietnam vet, one character is a Madonna-wannabe Catholic homemaker, one is a homeless drug addict, one was raped in prison and shot heroin once, one has cancer, one lost her virginity to the man who infected her…each character’s story could easily be wound into a full night of theater, but instead none really has the chance to undergo a full transformation or truly become someone else before our eyes.
As an inclusive tableau of AIDs culture across sexualities and lifestyle choices, I’m not sure that Raft of the Medusa is more compelling than Angels in America or even RENT, and as a story of personal struggles set against the backdrop of an era in history, each tale is filled out too sparsely to be compelling in a way that carries on after one leaves the theater. The performers are capable, hitting their marks and jerking tears in appropriate moments, and it’s a show that can be enjoyed if you’re in the mood for a bit of a downer.