19 January 2011

every woman adores a Fascist

Last Friday I went to the first performance of Eugenie Chan’s Diadem & Bone to Pick, just starting its run at Cutting Ball Theater. Bone to Pick had appeared a couple of years ago on a program with short plays by Gertrude Stein and Suzan-Lori Parks. I did not much like it (the reasons for my reaction are here, about halfway down). I decided to go to the revival because I was curious about the new accompanying play, Diadem, and how Bone to Pick would work in a new context. And I had bought a season pass, so basically I’d already paid for it. And I’m always open to the possibility that I’ll change my mind about something. I’ll put you out of your suspense right now: I didn’t change my mind. If you want to read something nice, you'll need to skip all the way down to the last paragraph.

When I first saw Bone to Pick, I felt that the author undercut the portrayal of Ria by making Theo such a crude fascist bully – it raises all sorts of questions about Ria herself that are never convincingly explored, if they’re even explored at all: What does it say about her that she’s attracted to someone like that? (Yes, he’s supposed to be hot, but everyone knows that personality affects our perception of physical appearance.) If she’s going to make comments all along about what a meathead he is, then isn’t she more complicit than he is in the trouble he causes? After all, he’s just following his nature, but she, as we are told repeatedly – the play could use some pruning – knows better. It seemed to me more effort was put into dumping all the blame on him and excusing her than on exploring the issues raised by the plot.

But then the plot and the psychology are both rather sketchy, and I wonder if the avant-garde, non-linear structure functioned as squid ink, helping to hide their basic incoherence. Even small details don’t add up: I can accept, if you’d like, a waitress who quotes King Lear (“vile jelly”), but it seems improbable that such a woman would also mispronounce “au jus” in a way that draws a laugh (a fairly cheap laugh, I think) from some of the audience. In fact, for all the fanciness of the linguistic structure, I couldn’t help noticing that what the audience seemed to respond to were jokes about cock (as in cocking a gun and, you know, cock) or the number 69 – the same sort of thing that would be laughed at by junior-high-schoolers who think they’re being sophisticated. And there’s a point where Theo hits Ria and threatens her with a gun – and moments later it just seems forgotten, and it doesn’t seem to affect her view of him. I've got to say, that must be one incredibly hot guy. Most women I know would harbor at least some slight resentment at having a gun pulled on them.

Theo is apparently some sort of soldier, or at least vigilante, but he’s not even brave, except when it comes to pushing around anything weaker than he is – he’s not even allowed the virtues of his faults, if you see what I mean. Couldn’t the playwright have been generous enough not to make him a coward, on top of his endless other bad qualities? Bernard Shaw was smart enough to give his capitalists valid arguments and plenty of good lines (he was also theatrically savvy enough to do so; it's always way too clear where the caricature that is Theo is going).

Theo is xenophobic and obsessed with guns and meat. There seems to be some attempt here at an allegory of contemporary American society, in which Theo and his “masculine” values are destructive and stupid and bad, while Ria, needless to say, is only guilty for loving him, almost against her will, in the good old Harlequin-romance way. If a nineteenth-century author talks about, and assigns values to, “masculine” and “feminine” traits (an obvious example is Das Ewig-Weibliche from the end of Faust), then I’ll make the cultural adjustment and see his or her point, but I’m not buying such a reductive and simplistic view of gender from a 21st-century author. If you think arrogance, stupidity, and violence are “male” values, do I really need to do more than gesture wearily towards the loathsome figure of Sarah Palin? And she is by no means an exception.

Imagine if the genders were reversed here: if a young male playwright wrote a solo work for actor, in which he, good-humored, stoic, appealing, hard-working, tells us about his girlfriend, who is stupid, shrill, vain, and shrewish, and he assists her in doing something really destructive but it’s not his fault at all because, you know, she has big tits and he really wants to bone her, and all along the way every reference to women is in some contemptuous, generic, cartoony way – do you really think anyone would buy that?

Diadem proved a good companion piece, since I felt Bone to Pick the first time around suffered by comparison with the Stein and Parks plays. Diadem also tells the story of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur, though in a more straightforward classical setting (or decoratively semi-classical, since there is plenty of evidence of modern times and contemporary sensibilities) and with more straightforward language – though even so, there are too many slips and self-indulgences; one example of a slip: Theseus is described as having “biceps rippling in the breeze,” which sounds like something out of SJ Perelman, because biceps can ripple, but not in a breeze (or even a strong wind, or a gale) the way something like water, or hair, or a flag can ripple in the breeze.

There’s a lot of more or less direct recitation of myth. About ten minutes in we were already hearing how the stupid men had killed and eaten Poseidon’s cattle, and I inwardly rolled my eyes, because it was clear we were going to get the same puerile “boys are icky” simplification of a rich and complicated subject (the subject in question being either mythology or gender relations). You know, I love the ocean (who doesn’t?), but I can’t claim to be a devout adherent of the god Poseidon, and I might spare some sympathy for half-starved sailors, anonymous and exhausted, who seized a chance for a rare decent meal, a respite in their rough and perilous lives. Sure, from the ancient Greek point of view, it was blasphemous, but Diadem isn’t exactly a faithful recreation of the classical experience. So why not bring in a perspective that isn’t about an extremely privileged woman (Ariadne is a princess, and a descendant of the gods) imposing her I’m-so-special priestess/goddess fantasies on the lower orders?

There are other examples, but it’s really not worth going on about them. I do not understand Cutting Ball’s commitment to this material. Though these plays make avant-garde gestures (the incantatory and collage-like nature of the language, the use of classical myth, the non-linear presentation), and Chan is not without talent, these plays strike me as hollow; the attempted richness and complexity of language are not matched by corresponding richness and complexity of thought and perception. It’s like seeing a spiky whorled shell on the beach but when you pick it up to examine it, it’s empty inside except for echoes. And unfortunately what it’s echoing is a view of women’s roles that is so smug, self-serving, and reductive that it’s barely worth the energy you’d spend arguing against it. If you’ve seen such stupid slogans as “girls rule, boys drool” that are sometimes marketed to the sillier junior-high girls, then you’ve basically seen these plays.

I will say, though: what I’ll call my lived experience in the theater was not that bad. No one was checking her cellphone during the second half, like the woman next to me at their last show; no one was kicking my seat or rear, like several women at several of their shows; the sets, sound, and lighting were all stylish and striking, in the Cutting Ball way. And Paige Rogers gave a virtuoso performance. My usual experience is that actors, no matter how skillful, can bring me through a piece once, and then the writing has to be there. But Paige held my interest even through my second viewing of Bone to Pick, which, I have to say, was a pretty awesome achievement, under the circumstances.

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