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Play Tectonics 

Triangle theater confronts audiences with plays about communities facing disorder

A nameless woman confesses a crime of both passion and premeditation in "Medea Redux," the second monologue in Neil LaBute's Bash: Latterday Plays, a trilogy of one-acts that opens the season for Raleigh Ensemble Players. The woman relates her story, struggling to remember a word she learned from her junior high school teacher, a man who seduced and abandoned her after she became pregnant at age 14. Near the conclusion of the piece, she dredges up the word with joyful deliverance, the finger-snapping retrieval a testament to her memory, her tenacity, and her profound sense of betrayal. The word she remembers is "ataxia," an ancient Greek term that means disorder, suggesting a world out of balance. Ataxia also describes a medical condition, the symptoms of which include an inability to control voluntary movements. In our contemporary moment, the word also captures the sense of physical and psychological vulnerability many feel.

Three major theater productions opened last week in the Triangle and each one contemplates disorder, imbalance and trauma from a slightly different perspective. Burning Coal Theatre Company's performance of Lanford Wilson's The Mound Builders acknowledges profound disruption without providing a diagnosis or a resolution. PlayMakers Repertory Company's staging of Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project's The Laramie Project, on the other hand, offers hope for recovery and proposes a method for restoring equilibrium. Finally, REP's production of LaBute's Bash adopts a radical approach to the poetics and psychology of control itself. Each of these sensibilities speaks to the fact that theater has something to offer, even now. As Nancy Franklin wrote in The New Yorker on Oct. 1, "We have not lost the ability to hear each other and to bear witness." While there's something to be said for re-establishing a sense of safety and stability, even a communal art form like theater cannot be reduced to a forum for seeking comfort. We may well emphasize our need for safety in ways we didn't before Sept. 11. But, this week, great comfort could be taken from the fact that Triangle theater continues to confront us with a variety of communities facing disorder.

The Mound Builders is a play about the discontinuity of history: The temporal order of things no longer functions. In the play, an incestuous group comprising two archaeologists and their wives--a group Burning Coal Artistic Director Jerome Davis would call the playwright's version of "family"--rents a house every summer in Missouri and gradually uncovers the remnants and riches of a lost civilization. In the midst of reifying that lost culture and spinning fantasies about the tomb of the mound builders' God-King, the archaeologists lose contact with the present state of their own lives and relationships. Perhaps they distance themselves on purpose: Wilson's characters bristle with a restless antagonism and rarely make contact, even when they're trying. The two couples and the local man who owns the property, Chad Jasker, bicker and betray one another. They take pains to distinguish themselves from the bevy of women graduate students camped out at the dig, and from their visiting dignitary, the vigorous eccentric Delia Erickson (Diane Ciesla), a famous novelist, recovering alcoholic, and sister of lead archaeologist August Howe (Jerome Davis).

Howe narrates the play by dictating field notes six months after the traumatic events of the last summer at the site. One need only look at the astonishing image on the cover of the program, however, to recognize the surreal quality of pastness that pervades the play. The image is of a house--the ramshackle cottage the archaeologists return to every summer--submerged and floating in the lake that, we learn, is slowly encroaching upon the dwelling. Distracted by the evidence of an earlier civilization, the two archaeologists' own histories are leached away.

The novelty of discovering pre-historic artifacts yields to an age-old territorial dispute between the men of science and the man of commerce. August and his wife Cynthia, and Dan and his wife Jean, are pathologically unable to live in the moment--the women chafe at their confinement as the men unearth a past in order to imagine a future. At times the accumulation of denial, negligence and self-deception seems potent enough to unmoor the dwelling; the house might as well be floating downstream to meet the Mississippi already. That sense of insubstantiality is never named, nor is it corrected, and Delia is the only character who leaves the dig in better shape than when she arrived. But we're not surprised, because the conclusion was placed before us before the beginning: The submerged house and August's Kodachrome slides evoke an unrecoverable past that never had a present tense. Highlights of the performance include Ciesla's portrayal of Delia and Jude Thaddeus Hickey's measured portrayal of Chad Jasker, an ambitious man whose eyes are trained on the future.

Of the three plays that opened last week, only The Laramie Project explores the possibility of recovery from traumatic imbalance and proposes an aesthetic component to the process of restoring equilibrium. The formally innovative work draws upon more than 200 interviews that members of Moisés Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Project conducted with residents of Laramie, Wyo., just after Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered by hometown boys Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. The drama derives much of its power from its subtle shaping of documentary source material through Kaufman's "tectonic," or structural, approach. The play has no scenes, per se, only moments of testimony juxtaposed with other moments. Eight actors portray 60 characters, including then 19-year-old Aaron Kreifels, who discovered Shepard near death at the fence; Reggie Fluty, the policewoman who was the first to respond to the 911 call; Doc O'Connor, a limousine driver who drove Shepard to gay bars in Colorado; Romaine Patterson, a close friend of Shepard's; and Aaron McKinney, who confessed to the murder.

The complicated piece depends upon superb pacing and coordination and demands that actors construct credible portraits not only of Laramie residents but also of the Tectonic Theatre project interviewers, who share the stage as witnesses and observers. The effect of layered testimonies is produced with minimal resources: sketchy costumes, very little dialogue, and few soliloquies. The diversity and strength of the PlayMakers' acting ensemble makes it impossible to single out any particular actor for recognition: Anne James' Reggie Fluty, Michael Polak's Matt Galloway and Philip Davidson's Doc O'Connor all seemed to touch the audience with their humor and humanity. The actors moved far beyond impersonation as they relayed stories entrusted to them by the people of Laramie, a covenant poignantly summed up in Laramie resident Father Roger Schmit's plea, "I will trust that if you write a play of this, that you say it right. You need to do your best to say it correct."

On a set that combines barbed wire, wood, corrugated tin and the big Wyoming sky, the actors use testimony, court transcripts and songs to express both the anguish and the hope that grew out of the tragic events of three years ago. During Act III, the healing process begins. Henderson and McKinney are tried and sentenced, young activists and actors become politicized. One member of the gay community in Laramie cries when he witnesses 500 people marching for Matthew Shepard in a Homecoming parade; another points out that one year after Shepard's death, no anti-discrimination or hate crime legislation has been drafted. For this man, the cost of restoring equilibrium is high: "The town's cleaned up, and we don't need to talk about it anymore."

In Bash, Neil LaBute's Euripidean tour de force, characters talk about everything all the time. For at least three characters, a violent death knocks the world out of equilibrium; each one laments the vicissitudes of fate and believes he or she has fallen victim to destiny. But we're not meant to take these obsessive monologists at face value. Euripides was the playwright of the mob government that followed the Peloponnesian War, and his era was marked by a declining faith in the gods, and rampant materialism. Sophocles himself maintained that Euripides was the poet who showed people the way they actually are. The Euripidean penchant for exposing hypocrisy that runs throughout LaBute's plays and films forces us to consider that these characters' own fateful decisions, their own agency, rather than fate itself, is the source of their malaise and the impetus behind their talking cure.

But the fact that LaBute's characters make choices with tragic consequences eludes their mental grasp. Despite their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, they appeal to vague notions of providence. In an interview with Showtime, which aired Bash last August, LaBute named the "whimsy of fate and a godless universe" as the trilogy's central themes. Then he suggested that the work explores sin, a concept somewhat difficult to reconcile with a godless universe. The play's subtitle, "Latterday Plays," further hints at the contradiction between secular and religious interpretations of agency. The religious devotion of these Latter Day Saints is never called into question, but neither is their ability to do extraordinarily evil deeds.

In "Iphigenia in Orem," LaBute stages Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter to appease the gods (from Euripides' "Iphigenia in Auris") in a contemporary locale. The monologue takes place in the anonymous hotel room of a well-fed, "above average" middle manager threatened by "a bunch of women with their MBAs and affirmative action nonsense," and downsizing orders that emanate from the ironically named "home office." The monologue unleashes the same collegiate and corporate frat-boy energies of LaBute's In the Company of Men, a film one critic called "a minimalist portrait of the tyranny of corporate culture." In "Iphigenia" and "Medea," that minimalism manifests itself as a near-suffocating interiority: The narrators address their comments to an interlocutor who never responds.

The third piece, iconoclastically titled "A Gaggle of Saints," departs from the classical sources of the first two and explores the social content of and context for individual evil acts. In reconsidering the notion that violence is synonymous with social cohesion, however, it does echo the bloody martial bonding of Attic drama. The piece serves as a study of the double--its overlapping monologues are punctuated by two violent incidents. John and Sue, two Boston College students, recount a recent trip to New York, but their divergent histories and modes of narration reveal a lack of physical and psychic connection. The first act of violence, an apparent dress rehearsal for the second, almost goes unnoticed, embedded as it is within rituals of their heterosexual courtship. The second, a gay bashing, is as unmistakable as it is inevitable, once John's language fails him and he begins to quote Fitzgerald. Despite their facility with language, LaBute's characters are stunningly inarticulate; they are utterly self-absorbed and deaf to the needs of others, yet unable to give voice to their own desires. In terms of language, the intensely confessional monologue form collapses, forcing the characters to betray themselves without even knowing it.

The characters' verbal solipsism equates with an inability to see themselves, or anyone else for that matter, while the show's extensive use of mirrors in the production design brilliantly exploits this metaphor. REP has conceptualized and constructed a performance space that imposes maximum self-reference on both performers and audience members. Audience members may choose a variety of vantage points from which to observe the action, which is fully in keeping with LaBute's interest in linguistic provocation. In The Dallas Observer, Scott Timberg writes about a 1991 performance of LaBute's Filthy Talk for Troubled Times. During one character's homophobic diatribe, an audience member stood up and shouted, "kill the playwright." For LaBute, who happened to be on stage, acting in the play, it was an exhilarating moment--somebody daring, as an audience member, to cross that aesthetic distance.

LaBute's focus on language itself and his neglect of the staging (evident in his direction of Bash for Showtime) is indicative of a traditionalist's investment in character. Characters--and the evil they embody--are sequestered from audience members. So it's fortuitous that REP has the aesthetic and intellectual audacity to contrive a means of turning LaBute's moralizing gaze back onto itself in a way that demands and rewards audience involvement. With their ingenious conceptualization of the theater's fourth wall, REP manages to both emphasize the single-minded intensity of LaBute's mission and to free the audience from its grasp. EndBlock

  • Three Triangle theater groups confront audiences with plays about communities facing disorder.

More by Maria Pramaggiore

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