Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Disposable Men" at Perishable Theatre

Disposable Men (at Perishable Theatre through Sunday), created by, written by, and starring James Scruggs, is a one-man show, but it is inhabited by multitudes. Dedicated to the dozens of black men shot by police in New York City since 1989 and given context by the hundreds of horror movie clips projected on screens behind Scruggs, the show sings with the voice of a ghostly chorus. Through Scruggs himself, soloists emerge: the "audience nigger," a live video feed on a television draped in a prophet's burlap and dreadlock wig, who comments acerbically on images of black characters being bloodily dispatched in movies projected on-stage; the "lynch nigger" at Supremacy, a hot new theme restaurant where patrons pay to enact racist fantasies, and for the ribs, which look excellent; Cleophus Washington, who has the "bad blood" but, thank goodness, a diligent and good-hearted doctor to take care of him and his afflicted wife; Eddie the Watch, the innovative Bar Mitzvah dancer now keeping time in prison; a recruiter for a prison fraternity called Con Kappa Con (or is that Kan Kappa Kan?); and, finally, terribly, Amadou Diallo, the young, unarmed immigrant shot 41 times by New York City police officers in the winter of 1999. Like Frankenstein, like the Wolf Man, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, like Dracula, no ordinary means sufficed to take him down; it took, as it always does in the old movies, a village.

The play is immersive and disturbing, in part because its tone is so varied; its shifts in time and space and attitude shake us awake. Sometimes, however, its sense of adventure threatens to steer it towards obscurity. That there is a connection between the film clips and Scruggs's characters is clear, but it borders on the academic: is the play about film, or are the films about the play? That is, is the play about representation, or do filmic representations of monsters create an apt metaphor for the play's characters? And what about horror movie monsters is "disposable?" There are moments of sublime correspondence between film and stage, but just as often their relationship is nebulous and elusive. (I admit that I was distracted by trying to identify the various clips, many of which were taken from my favorite movies.) What makes Disposable Men work so well is not its digital media, but the human medium of Scrugg's voice--both authorial and oratorical--which is ironic, irreverent, reflective, baffled, and angry. Above all it is persuasive, and we follow it everywhere: to Supremacy, to a street corner where a mother sells her son for a sandwich or three, to a battle royal staged for the entertainment of prison guards. The play is kaleidoscopic rather than panoptic: through a single instrument we see distinct and vivid arrangements of the same elements. Even as Scruggs himself splinters and fragments, the play loses neither intensity nor purpose. Maybe atomization is the wrong analogy for this show; maybe, for all of its messy inquiry and bloody deconstruction, the play is actually about restoration. Scruggs isn't breaking himself down into discrete parts; he's documenting the making of an indivisible man.

Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" at the Gamm

In the world according to Oscar Wilde, life is a catalogue of afflictions: power corrupts, education curdles, wealth distracts, charm spoils, marriage entraps, facts disappoint, politics bore. In short, all the world’s a plague. This position, ostensibly harrowing, is actually comic, in the sense that misfortune distributed universally and indiscriminately loses its ability to shock or injure; tragedy is what happens when your life is worse than your neighbor’s. This worldview may also feel a little Socialist—which Wilde was, and which was anyway a less scurrilous thing to be accused of in the 1890s than it is today—in its faith that only a level playing field will allow for the most artful exercise of an individual’s freedom. Appropriately, in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband there is no calamity worse than privilege. The best that can be said about the show (at the Gamm Theatre through December 7th) is that, through it, Wilde was able to develop one of his favorite themes—the resilience of authenticity in a world clotted with fraudulence. The worst is that the play can feel not just rigged but contrived, even authoritarian—which is the antithesis of Wilde’s personal and political ideals--because it is about moral decision but plotted to circumvent moments of real consequence. The challenge for any cast performing it is to somehow communicate the very moral seriousness that Wilde ironizes, and to make Wilde’s irony seem not just freshly discovered but appropriate to the moment; his characters have to come by it honestly and express it provisionally, or the audience will feel not so much like co-conspirators in a clever subversion as subjects to an ideologue. We must sense the play’s dark undercurrent of grief and disillusionment even as we revel in the froth and babble of its humor.

Sir Robert Chiltern (Jim O’Brien) seems to have it made—he’s in parliament and pegged for great success, admired and influential beyond his dreams, and married to the loving Lady Chiltern (Casey Seymour Kim)—but there’s a problem with his ideal life: it’s built on a lie. More than twenty years before the start of the play, he had sold a state secret to a speculator; the fortune he made from this deal is the fragile foundation of his entire political career since. The funny thing about the past is that, though it never disappears, neither does it stay the same. For Chiltern, the callow behavior of his early years in politics has been justified and mollified by the good he has done since then: it has been transformed from a pitfall to a step up. An Ideal Husband begins with Chiltern being shown the quick way back down. Mrs. Cheveley (the long-limbed and caramel-voiced Jeanine Kane), a socialite-cum-adventuress living in Vienna, has returned to London with only a hook and some bait. She wants Chiltern to suppress a Cabinet report on the poor prospects of an Argentine canal so that the government will buy shares in it and her heavy investment will turn into considerable profit; should he refuse, she explains, she is prepared to go public with a note proving his involvement in the scheme of two decades before. Chiltern cannot suppress the canal report—his career in Parliament has been a model of probity and honor—but he cannot issue it either: to do so would invite public disgrace and private collapse. He would lose the public’s trust, and, even worse, his wife’s adoration. What’s an ideal husband to do?

In this case, he turns to Lord Goring (Tony Estrella), his unemployed and unambitious friend. Thank goodness for the idle rich, who, untroubled by the demands of real jobs, are available for freelance work. Goring is good-hearted and eloquent, so we don’t hold his aimlessness against him; in fact, his indifference to the blandishments of professional or societal advancement seems to have preserved his moral sensitivity. He advises Lord Chiltern to confess his indiscretion to his wife before she finds out about it from Mrs. Cheveley, and admonishes Lady Chiltern to forgive her husband’s fallibility; she must surrender her claim to an ideal and learn to love the real. (Goring, it has been noted, bears a striking resemblance to Wilde himself: both men had accomplished fathers; both had a sartorial obsession; both claimed to be two years younger than they really were; and both believed that the only virtue worth practicing is honesty. That Goring is the show’s hero, then, should not come as a surprise.) Meanwhile, Goring devises a plan to get the damning letter from Mrs. Cheveley, which would obviate the need for confession and forgiveness. There are a number of misunderstandings and a long scene in which Goring must prevent guests in his house from discovering each other behind closed doors, but in the end, and with true comedic pessimism, one marriage is restored and another begun.

An Ideal Husband is a pessimistic comedy, after all, because it concludes that the world is unchangeable; the only way to survive it is to change ourselves. For Wilde, the apotheosis of human development is the ironist, who engages in the world but recognizes the ridiculousness of his or her own commitments and pursuits. This is what both Sir and Lady Chiltern become: by the end of the play they are sadder and wiser, thus happier and more reckless. The triumph of this production is that, in spite of Wilde’s conclusion, the play does not feel detached or aloof; indeed, the performers, particularly Casey Seymour Kim as Lady Chiltern, ensure that the show is alive to, and in touch with, the real world. Kim navigates its difficult moral and emotional landscape nimbly; with her open face and a body that wheels orbitlessly about the stage—she is a tireless physical actor—she is, as she ought to be, simultaneously tragic and comic. Her performance continually reminds us that, in another play, the Chilterns’ dilemma would end very differently. What I mean is that, in some way, her performance exemplifies the very humanist irony that is Wilde’s prescription for the world’s maladies. Tony Estrella and Jim O’Brien are funny—Estrella, in particular, has a great time playing Goring’s loving and exasperated relationship with his father—but their performances are not selfless and utterly knowing, as I think Kim’s is. It does not pretend that the world is not a serious place; but it also does not pretend that we can do anything about it other than laugh.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Black Rep: Bitten by the Economic Bug

The Black Rep has cut five jobs and suspended the two plays planned for Winter and Spring '09. Don't worry: the Xxodus Café will remain open, educational programs will still be offered, and the Providence Sound Session is expected to go on as scheduled. Read it here at the ProJo and here on the Black Rep homepage.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Round Two

Now that the theatrics of the election season are over--or at least the dignified, ennobling part; the sordid coda, a dull comedy played out by a shadowy chorus of McCain aids and the spurned Sarah Palin, continues--it's time to get ready for round two of Providence's stage season.

The Gamm Theatre ends previews of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband tonight and opens the show officially Thursday night at 8:00 PM.

That same night, at 7:30, the Brown/Trinity Consortium opens Hamlet at the Pell Chaffee Theater on Empire Street. The show runs through the weekend.

And next Friday, 2nd Story Theatre begins previews of The Miracle Worker,
William Gibson's dramatization of Helen Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life. It opens officially on Thursday, November 20th at 8:00...

...the night before Trinity Rep's A Christmas Carol begins. From November 21st through New Year's Eve, there will be a Christmas Carol starting every 52 minutes. In three years of attending Trinity Shows I haven't seen this mainstay; this could be the year.

Inspired by Hilton Als's review of Peter Brook's production of The Grand Inquisitor in the Nov. 10th New Yorker and my own chance encounter with the theories of Antonin Artaud in the Brown Bookstore this weekend, I'm watching the Royal Shakespeare Company film of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade on YouTube today. Fun!