Tuesday, October 09, 2007

PLAY: "Harm's Way"

If you take Shakespeare's word for it, then "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." But if you listen to Mac Wellman, he'll take it one step further, for if the world's a stage, then life itself is just a show, and we're all party to its indiscriminate messes. Such a darkly festive world is that of his 1985 play, Harm's Way, which follows the fall of Santouche (Seth Reich), an embodiment of the angry American who, convinced of his own morality, watches the world slip and slide away from him.

The cast of seven are raggedly tuxedoed vagabonds, who speak in an equally broken finery of eloquent slang that's filled with stiffs and bitches. But while such stylistic elements are pleasing on the eye (thanks to Howard Klein), they're less endearing to the ear. Wellman's play (like many of his con artist characters) operates like a gypsy (in the most negative sense): it robs scenes of meaning and replaces it with a lot of boiled up hokum and the maxim that: "This is America; therefore anything can happen."

And so it does; Santouche encounters a man named William McKinley, who wants Santouche to talk Grover Cleveland into burying him alive (the only problem being that poor Grover's a stiff). "Well then, you'd better be convincing," threatens McKinley (Jason F. Williams, who is at least entertainingly loud as the myriad hucksters of the show), aiming a two-fingered "gun" at our anti-hero. Whether it's a joke or not (a vindictively inside one, if any), when Santouche disarms the villain, he decides to bury him alive after all, in a feat of creative staging by director johnmichael rossi, who has done a fantastic job of visualizing Wellman's episodic fragments.

This direction is where the cast finds solid ground: it's not entirely clear why Santouche and his sullen friend Fisheye (Williams again) get into a shootout with the villainous Blackmange (Justin Sturges), but rossi's use of overlapping parallel lines (we see the far left and far right at once on different levels of center stage) makes it emphatically violent. It's not clear what the Wizard (more Williams) is supposed to represent as he pokes his long white beard through a slit in the fabric that eventually becomes his gown, but it's interesting, oddly enough.

However, these things don't make Harm's Way any better. The chorus (Esra Cizmeci, Niluka Hotaling, and Sturges) is mercurial, but only in the sense of mercury found in old thermometers -- that is, they're limited to only one level of excitability, and it grows tiresome to watch. The few accessible scenes, between the manipulative ringleader Crowsfoot (Williams) and Santouche's maligned girlfriend, Isle of Mercy (Megan Raye Manzi) are shades of one another, and though Ashleigh Beyer is bright and perky, her character remains exactly as titled: By Way of Being Hidden.

Williams, in one of his many iterations as trickster, says "If you're not part of the show, you're part of them what takes it all in, and that's a fool." Maybe some people will be in on the show, but I felt like a fool, a perplexed yet curious fool.

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