Mark Wilding’s ‘Our Man in Santiago’ — Cloak and Dagger With Chuckles Aplenty

By Ernest Kearney — The military coup ď état that toppled the democratically elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende would prove a tragedy for that country.

Allende who had travelled to Vietnam to meet Ho Chi Minh, flaunted his relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and was attempting to reorganize Chile’s economy along Marxist lines, had long been targeted by the Nixon administration. But the socialistic Allende’s violent downfall and subsequent suicide in 1973 involved more than the “usual suspects.”

Brazil, Australia, Argentina, Great Britain and yes, the USA, had all played a part in the coup, but more as “cheerleaders” with readied checkbooks.

Matters heated up significantly for Allende after he nationalized ITT’s Chilean holdings, and in retaliation the American-based corporation (with assistance from the CIA) began pumping funds into the anti-Allende forces. This would culminate in a General Strike of the nation by the various factions and classes seeking to depose Allende.

Allende survived the strike which lasted twenty-four agonizing days, Chile’s already crippled economy did not. It was here that aspects of the Chile’s military decided enough was enough. Allende, aware of this threat, placed the nation’s armed forces under the command of a man he trusted – General Augusto Pinochet.

This did not work out well for him.

In the end it was Allende, himself, and the irreconcilable policies he pursued of maintaining stability while cultivating revolutionary change, that would seal his fate.

In Our Man in Santiago, Playwright Mark Wilding forgoes those subtle, silken threads from which history spins its webs, which is entirely acceptable since he’s penning a farcical romp and not a historical recounting.

It’s 1973, and Baker (Nick McDow Musleh) a young CIA rookie finds himself inexplicably dispatched to Santiago, Chile and a hotel room directly across from La Moneda, the capital’s fortress-like presidential palace which is surrounded by a very noisy mob who seem to be upset about something.

Having been reassigned without explanation from the CIA’s New Zealand field office, where he was busily compiling a dossier on the Kiwi’s national obsession with bird-watching, Baker feels the “cloak” is way too big for him and the “dagger” is more like a plastic knife from a MacDonald’s Happy Meal.

Fumbling to load his newly issued firearm as he nervously awaits the arrival of his handler, Baker is disturbed by the appearance of the hotel maid (Presciliana Esparolini) who practices her English on him by explaining that the country’s president, Salvador Allende, is the target of the raucous protests outside his window.

Enter Wilson (George Tovar) the crude, cruel and coldblooded longtime station chief of the CIA’s Chilean desk. An Ugly American having a bad hair day.

As the attacks on La Moneda intensify, Baker learns from Wilson the role assigned to him, which the neophyte agent immediately recognizes as both life threatening and a tad ghoulish.

To overcome his reluctance, Wilson allows him to listen in on his conspiratorial communiqués to the Oval Office where Nixon (Steve Nevil) and Kissinger (Michael Van Duzer) carry on less like evil puppet-masters and more like an old bickering married couple you find yourself seated next to at the IHOP.

From here Wilding thickens the plot revealing the hapless Baker is merely a blind asset in a covert hunting pack, a naked soft cover in a false flag honey trap where absolutely no one has his six. In other words he’s a very confused “confusion agent.” (God, I love espionage argot!)

Now when sitting through plays by successful television writers I generally find myself trying to figure out which of my many past sins karma is forcing me to atone for. Happily, this was not the case with Our Man in Santiago.

Wilding has served up a sharp, witty script that offers an abundance of laughs with an admirable number of insights slipped in. At points one senses the playwright biting at the bit to cut loose and go galloping hell bent for leather into farce, which I’m not sure would have been a bad idea.

Instead, Wilding has held on to the creative reins adroitly assuring that when his spy comes in from the cold, he’s sharing a table at Monk’s Café with the Seinfeld crew rather than an Opera Box with the Marx Brothers.

Overall the cast is solid. From the outset Wilding wins the audience over with the sweet flirtation between Musleh and Esparolini; a spell he never lets falter.
Nevil’s Nixon is very sellable and Michael Van Duzer’s unctuous Kissinger will justly please his many fans.

Tover’s Wilson is more problematic. His role is that of the 800-pound gorilla in the room who prefers his banana martinis “shaken not stirred,” and while Tover touches all the right bases, his performance lacks integration.

This is a flaw that echoes throughout the play and must be laid at the feet of Director Charlie Mount.

Our Man in Santiago is a construction of two-character pairings — Baker and Maria (the hotel maid), Nixon and Kissinger — but Wilson is the malevolent wild card; the source of the essential conflict required to bind together the narrative’s elements then furiously hurl them forth toward the dramatic climax.

Mount, unfortunately, has not imposed that unity, and both the play and Tovar’s performance have taken a hit for being left in isolation. The director’s facet, most apparent in the first half of the play, where characters keep swapping positions on opposite sides of the stage with a repetition usually observed in tennis matches.

Fortunately, Wilding’s wit and the cast’s vigor manage to overcome this.

Our Man in Santiago presents the audience with a cloak and dagger caper that definitely qualifies for inclusion within the ranks of the C.I.A. “(C)ertainly (I)s (A)musing.”

(Featured Photo: Presciliana Esparolini and George Tovar / Photo by Charlie Mount)

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Our Man in Santiago

on stage thru Oct. 24 at
Theatre West
3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West
Los Angeles, CA 90068
(Located between Barham and Lankershim – north of the Hollywood Bowl and south of Ventura Blvd. in Studio City –  across the 101 freeway from Universal Studios )

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at and Follow him on Facebook.

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