On the Radio: Splendor and Death of Porfirio Rubirosa

Poet, assassin, playboy, Porfirio Rubirosa speeds through the winding streets of Paris in his silver Ferrari, senses dulled by age and drink, time running out. Over the engine’s arrogant purr he cries out…

PORFIRIO: Beautiful Parisians, come to your balconies
I want to hear once more the hungry castanets…
Look at me!

(SCREEEECH-KA-BOOM!)

The car crashes into a tree and bursts into flame, a fiery, mangled wreck of metal silhouetted in crackling flames. And in a glorious fireball our doomed hero meets his untimely death…or does he?

Splendor and Death of Porfirio Rubirosa, a new voiceplay by New York author/actor Chris Baskous, harkens back to glorious radio broadcasts of the thirties and forties like The Lone Ranger ("hi-ho Silver!") and The Shadow ("Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men?"), a time when adaptations of age-old tales, Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds riveted audiences across the nation. Nostalgic for the art form as heard on FM and college radio in California in the 1960s and ’70s, Baskous gathered together a crew of seasoned stage veterans and crafted a good old-fashioned radio drama based on the notorious Dominican diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa. A riff on the title of Pablo Neruda’s heroic verse "Fulgor y Muerte de Joaquin Murieta," Splendor has been airing on progressive radio stations across the country (in New York segments can be heard on WBAI 99.5 during the Arts Magazine program).

Rubirosa was famous for his fast living and scandalous love affairs—he was married seven times, including once to Zsa Zsa Gabor, and later to her sister Eva—though his lifelong union was with the Dominican Trujillo dictatorship, to whom he was always faithful. Baskous takes Rubirosa’s life and re-imagines him as a sort of transfigured poetic anti-hero. While a student in Paris in the 1920s (which he was), his "Rubi" goes through a rebellious phase where he falls in with Bohemians and in a fever of youthful rebellion cranks out wacky surrealist poetry "versos." Years later, in the final moments before his death in a high-speed car crash (evoked above), Rubi cries out in agony with regret for the poet’s life that might have been, and is granted a miraculous reprieve.

In Baskous’s sonic weave, Rubi’s story plays out alongside a parallel tale of scientist Woody Mezmer’s dream journey across America visiting YMCAs in small towns, and the misadventures of a demented Byzantine underground:

Meanwhile, in America, top marine biologist, the lovelorn, nearsighted Dr. Woody Mezmer, cannot focus on his work, nursing a broken heart.

WOODY: She loves me, she loves me not. Damn, I bet Porfirio Rubirosa, the greatest lover of the century, never got jilted by his research assistant!

DR. NAKAHARA: Woody, can I have a word with you. These readings you’ve been coming up with, they can’t be right, you’ve gone mad. Take some time off, a vacation man.

WOODY: I’ll show them! I’ll show them all! I’ll find all the answers I’ve been searching for all these years, even if my travels take me all the way to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Splendor is a wickedly bawdy piece of slapstick black comedy chock full of double and triple entendres. Baskous draws from clichés of old pulp spy novels, B-movies, and the cold war intrigues of authors like Graham Greene (The Third Man) writing in the post World War periods. The piece plays like a fantastical fever dream, nonsensical at times, hilarious, filled with post-modern time juxtapositions and barely veiled fart jokes.

Porfirio is led by a mysterious stranger through the sewers of Paris—past outdoor café’s filled with Parisians, past foreign legionnaires, past mosaics and ancient temples with ecstatic virgins. He awakes in the bottom of a leaky boat, shanghaied by hooded figures manning oars rowing him through murky waters—Constantinople!

All of Woody’s scientific predictions and "underwater signals" coalesce as Rubirosa, fresh off a boat smuggled to America enters his world. Dying, languorously, Rubi recites a last "Testamento," in broken English and Spanish:

PORFIRIO: To those Students, who always embarrass themselves In dubious battle, I am leaving my battering ram…
And to those professors, when you excuse yourselves
To defile great books—take care, Ayee!—Do not use these, my pages…

And you, my fat friend Diego Rivera, bombthrower and painter,
Who knew only the tragic unquiet
Of rotten fruit and deranged clowns
For whom, (and no other), I write these verses!

I leave you a dinner jacket that can’t cover your body
And miraculous shoes that bless the ground where you walk
Ay! Crying out for the forgotten embraces
Of lovers inflamed and resplendent, redolent of nothingness.

The skies open and a staircase descends, bearing a parade of women—all former lovers—escorting Porfirio to heaven. In a fitting end, proving one man an exception to the rules, the cosmos are altered, as are the fates of Woody and earth’s weary inhabitants.

Baskous asserts that the handful of colleagues he brought together to record the two-dozen or so roles performed during Splendor and Death, all veterans of Shakespearean and classical theater, simply had a ball recording the voiceplay. Listening in, one can hear the barely concealed raucous time had by all.

Excerpts from Splendor and Death can be heard on WBAI 99.5 FM during the Arts Magazine program, Tuesdays, 2-3pm Eastern Time (stream at www.wbai.org) and as a webcast at Radio Free Exile on Thursdays 12–1am (http://www.live365.com/stations/exileguy).
For schedule updates and further info, see www.chrisbaskous.com

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