I went to the opening night of this year’s edition of Avant GardARAMA!, the Cutting Ball Theater’s annual evening of short experimental works, and it’s not too late for you to see them, which I urge you to do, despite my reservations about one of the three pieces.
First let me say I really love the idea behind these shows: that experimental theater is enjoyable and interesting. What a refreshing change from the eat-your-roughage approach most musical groups take. Last January I heard the Belcea Quartet, and the program book anxiously assured us that listeners “usually dismayed at the prospect of hearing Webern [in this case, the Five Movements for String Quartet, Opus 5] will find these pieces quite approachable.” What a relief to know I won’t need my smelling salts to endure a ten-minute excursion into the modern. It made me wonder if the accompanying Haydn and Schubert quartets, wonderful though they were, were chosen more for safety’s sake than beauty’s. Webern died over sixty years ago – isn’t there some kind of statute of limitations on these warnings? I mean, at some point they stopped warning us about Beethoven (though maybe they shouldn’t have – we wouldn’t take him for granted so).
And at the SF Symphony last June, at the premiere of Turnage’s Three Asteroids: The Torino Scale, Juno, Ceres, conductor Benjamin Schwartz turned to the audience – how my heart sinks when I see conductors put down the baton and pick up the microphone – and assured us that though the first movement was going to be awfully noisy, the second two were quite lovely. I don’t mean to single out Schwartz, who seems like a nice young man, but shouldn’t musicians his age be trying to shock guys my age with their wild and raucous sounds? Instead, though I preferred the first movement, I was a bit let down by its lack of awful noise, and wondered why a warning was considered necessary. Don’t undercut what you’re trying to sell.
So I salute the statement of Cutting Ball Artistic Director (and the evening’s director) Rob Melrose that this year's plays “are first and foremost experiences. There is no right answer, any more than there is a right way to respond to a walk in the woods. . . . There will be no test at the end of this performance. Sit back, enjoy and let your mind be washed over with these beautiful words and images.” And as usual with Cutting Ball, the video and sound (Cliff Caruthers), set (Michael Locher), lighting (Heather Basarab), and costumes (Jocelyn Leiser Herndon) were beautiful (by which I mean interesting as well as attractive) to look at and listen to. All three plays used the same set; a dully reflective silver material, somewhere between foil and mirror, which covered the floor and walls except when it broke for a narrow horizontal opening across the whole set about a third of the way up the wall.
First up was Gertrude Stein’s brief Accents in Alsace, performed by Paige Rogers, Felicia Benefield, and David Westley Skillman. While listening to Accents in Alsace I became convinced once again that Dr Seuss knew his Stein, and when you also consider how much Hemingway stole from her, it seems pretty clear that she is one of the great underground streams watering modern American literature. Some Steinophobes find her maddeningly childish, sing-songy and self-regarding, but I am a long-time Steinophile and feel that she has a winning charm and wit and poetry, even apart from the romance of her life story and her courage in pursuing her art. I sometimes think that I am possibly the only person in the world who has both never been to graduate school in English literature and also read in their entirety both Stein's The Making of Americans and Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this bonne bouche.
Benefield and Skillman returned for the second play, Betting on the Dust Commander by Suzan-Lori Parks. I’ve seen several of her plays now, and love her work more with each exposure. The Dust Commander was a horse on which Lucius (Skillman) had placed a bet. His wife Mare (Benefield) – well, there’s no point in trying to describe the plot, because the piece is about suggestive metaphor, rather than a particular incident. As with Beckett’s Play, the second half of the piece is a word-for-word repeat of the first half, though thanks to the skill of the author and the actors, the repetition feels like a deepening, as if mere repetition is giving us the contour of their everyday life and their entire lives. The props – the yellow couch covered with plastic to protect it from the dust, for instance, and especially the Woolworth-style dining room table with its cheap bright yellow seat cushions – were almost distractingly perfect in positioning the time, place, and economic situation of the couple. The horse racing around on a circular track, towards victory or defeat (seen in both video and language), the repetition of word and gesture, the couple’s circular lives and hopes, and the dust interrupting the circularity with its slow accumulation, all created an evocative sense of a complete world of many dimensions. Benefield and Skillman were outstanding.
The evening’s third piece was the premiere of Bone to Pick by Eugenie Chan, a forty-minute monodrama recasting the legend of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur in the labyrinth as the story of Ria, a waitress in a roadside diner, and her customer Theo. Paige Rogers returned to play Ria. I had always thought of Paige as a comic actress, based on her surprisingly hilarious turn several years ago as Phoebe in As You Like It, the first show I saw at Cutting Ball, but her Lady Macbeth for them a few years ago and now her Ria have convinced me that her range is much wider. She gives an absolutely riveting, enthralling performance as Ria. There’s a sheer physical thrill in watching someone singlehandedly hold the stage for forty minutes. But I wish Chan had been less self-indulgent with the language and especially the characterization.
The Stein and Parks pieces both summon up vivid worlds through a powerful and sometimes eccentric use of language that belongs uniquely to their creators; there’s a certain timelessness in their lack of the sort of reference that would need footnotes. Chan takes a different (and entirely legitimate) approach, using what we can call without irony the time-honored modernist tradition of pastiche, collage, and reference to both ephemeral pop culture and classic myths and literature. But one trap in this style that wasn’t always avoided is the possibility of seeming a bit too self-aware and self-congratulatory (the passing reference to King Lear – Out, vile jelly! – felt that way to me.)
But the real danger is that you let your references do the work for you. That applies to both the author and the audience, which can think it’s gaining insight when it’s just catching a reference. For example, the use of the Big Mac jingle (“two all-beef patties, special sauce. . . .” – you know how it goes) in relation to Theo: meat, flesh, is already established as one of the repeating metaphors. But a McDonald’s reference carries with it, especially for the sort of audience that goes to evenings of short experimental plays, a whole host of almost entirely negative connotations. It creates an entire (and uninflected) aura around the character it refers to. It’s condemnation by brand name. And there’s some validity to that, but it can feel too easy and dismissive, and Theo is already way too much of a caricature to withstand this sort of treatment.
Repeated references (too often repeated – the play could have used some pruning) are made to his “six-pack abs” and to his appetite for meat with a side of fries. Well, unfortunately for most guys, if you have that diet, you don’t have those abs. That’s not an entirely trivial point, since it indicates a failure to think through what Theo’s life and character are like. His abs might actually tell you some interesting things about him – that’s he’s very disciplined, or that he’s athletic, or that he’s just pretty damn lucky (not least because his body coincides with the fashion for defined abdominals in men, rather than, say, broad shoulders or thick calves). Instead we get the cover of a romance novel: he’s arrogant and kind of a brute, but also kind of sexy, so Ria’s acquiescence to him can be excused.
My point here is not that the presentation of Theo should have been sympathetic, or that the piece should be told from his point of view – my point is that, if she had wanted to, Chan should have been able to present the piece from his point of view; in other words, he needs to be a plausible human being. (Her presentation of Kingman, Ria’s father, is a good example – he was nuanced and interesting enough in the brief passage about him so that she could have written another play entirely from his point of view.) Repeating that he loves guns and meat, and hates foreigners, doesn’t really deepen or expand the picture of him.
The caricature of him makes the portrait of Ria an ideological balancing act; she has to be knowing enough to qualify as a strong woman, but victim enough so that she shares no guilt with him. So her actions and reactions become completely predictable – when she finally turns the combination that opens the labyrinth door, then (of course, of course) she immediately has a tender, understanding relationship with the awful monster, and Theo, to no one’s surprise but Ria’s, pulls out the gun she’s told him not to carry and brutally kills the Minotaur against her protests. The entry into the labyrinth and the confrontation with the Minotaur are obviously meant as a diving-into-the-wreck moment, but whether you read it politically (one of the combinations she tries out is 9-11-01) or personally (the numbers that ultimately open the lock are her body measurements), it sort of begs the question of what she was thinking, and why she agreed to let him in. How, given the portrait she is painting of him, and her wry comments about him, could she not know what he was going to do?
Ultimately the limitation is not in the presentation of Theo, but in that of Ria. He is crude, overbearing, and violent; she is of course aware of all this, since otherwise she would be stupid, or as bad as he is; yet she helps him all along the way as if she didn’t know better. The only real fault she seems to have (if fault it can be called) is that most glamorous, envied, and forgivable of failings, a lustful longing for love. As with any conspicuously one-sided view, you feel that the storyteller is omitting a lot that might complicate things. There’s no sense that Ria is to blame for anything, and I just don’t buy it as either life study or as political parable.
A few years ago a woman wrote a letter to the SF Chronicle saying that the whole mess in Iraq would be taken care of in no time if women were in charge of settling it. You could probably guess the letter writer’s age pretty accurately from that statement; I remember back when that sort of thing was the sort of thing to say. But I wondered who those women were who were going to settle everything so briskly and sensibly: Laura Bush? Condoleeza Rice? Peggy Noonan or Maureen Dowd? The military wives and mothers who attacked Cindy Sheehan in the press? Pvt Lynndie England? And even the recent New Yorker article about Abu Ghraib described the male soldiers implicated (particularly the African-American ones) as “angry” while England was described as if she were an emotional victim of the situation, not quite in control of all those cheery thumbs-up gestures she was making over the men she was torturing.
And recently I read that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called President Bush “a total failure” – no argument with that, except there’s at least one thing at which he’s been undeniably and brilliantly successful, and that’s getting everything he wants out of the Democrat-controlled Congress that she helps run. I’m an overly reasonable guy, and I understand about taking impeachment off the table and continuing to fund our illegal and immoral wars of aggression – a politician’s reasons are not my reasons, and I understand that there are things I don’t have to take into consideration. But there was no excuse for caving on FISA, especially given Bush's epic unpopularity. So while it’s very nice that she’s going around talking about “empowering” our daughters and granddaughters, why is she pretending that the blood dripping from her hands is somebody else’s fault?
It is way past the time when anyone can claim dispensation from the American disaster thanks to chromosomal coincidences. You know when you’re a full and equal member of society? When you’re held morally accountable for your actions and non-actions.