Tuesday, November 20, 2007

PLAY: "Bad Jazz"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

"Love? What the fuck is love?" asks Gavin (Rob Campbell), squatting like a sumo-wrestler as he struggles to direct his star, Natasha (Marin Ireland). He thrusts his cock forward, aroused by his own genius, and continues: "She wants to experience something that is made up of sex, and cruelty, and blood, and shit, and not some sentimental wank that has been invented to make us feel okay about ourselves." Now he postures for a moment, his jaw molded with as fierce an imprimatur as the one he is putting onto the play-within-a-play in Robert Farquhar's Bad Jazz, and casts a castrating glance at the clueless co-star, Danny (Ryan O'Nan), before continuing: "She can smell truth. She can't articulate it, but, she knows . . ." Has there ever been a more viscerally staged (and comically directed, courtesy of the exaggeratively minimalist, Trip Cullman) discourse on the artistic endeavor (sorry, Mr. Rapp)?

If that doesn't do it for you, Bad Jazz opens with a neat little argument between Tash and her boyfriend of three years, Ben (Darren Goldstein): "I didn't think that when I read the stage direction 'she performs oral sex' that mean you were actually, actually, going to be performing a, real, fucking blowjob, for real, in a play, on stage, in front of a paying audience." The question at heart is "how much more real do you want it to get?" and the answer, some ninety minutes later, as one of the cast members lies in a puddle of his or her own blood, awkwardly pulling out his or her own intestine for a better look, is pretty damn far. In between, Farquhar looks at the dynamic between director and playwright ("You are not the only author in the rehearsal room"), unleashes a riff on the importance of Theatre (which must "always, always reserve the right to fuck over people's minds), pauses for a moment to riff (as jazz must) on the ethics of what a play can and cannot proclaim ("It's not as if we've got somebody standing up here mouthing off about Islam, have we?"), and watches carefully the bleed between actor and character, an arrestingly well made point by Tash (the phenomenal Ireland), who is so consumed by her prostitute part that she begins to live the lifestyle, too.

The text is rich and deep, and there's very little that doesn't fit, beyond a small diversion between Gavin and a prostitute he hires, named Ewan (Colby Chambers), which really only serves to show Gavin's unusual predilections (he forces Ewan to become a character -- Jacob, from the Andrew Lloyd Weber production -- so that he can fuck him). The text is loaded, and the play grows darker as it gets deeper; at the same time, the play has a weird contrapuntal display of semi-absurd exaggeration to match the heightened intensity. Danny attempts to shoot up with a stage syringe, tying an increasingly desperate knot around his arm, only to keep flinching at the needle. Danielle (Susie Pourfar), Gavin's producer, slips on a strap-on to demonstrate the authenticity of a fake penis (it "pops up" elsewhere, too). And Tash, in a memorably cathartic rehearsal loses herself in the repetition of this sublimely ridiculous speech: "It was a fuck. That's all it was, because me and you, we're just two fucked-up no-hopers who got fucked up on fuck knows what, and we fucked, we fucked, we fucked." (Say that ten times fast.)

For all the foul language that jangles, Farquhar's script is surprisingly buoyant, which fits with the discordant theme of bad jazz that director Cullman has caulked into the seams of the play. There's a clash visually, too: Dane Laffrey's set design starts as the empty theater itself, so as to be a blank canvas for the growing aural chaos, and Ben Stanton's lighting cuts even the harshest of images into elegant pieces, as when the moment before a blowjob is suddenly frozen so as to give us a simultaneous scene between the depressed, pill-popping playwright and her nonchalant director.

Of course, it's not all roses: for all that Bad Jazz is a play about controversy, it often provokes itself away from art and into artifice. While Cullman's direction is sharp enough to cover this with the exaggerative staging (more provoking), the show -- especially its cafe denouement -- often seems put on, not raw, and that gives the audience a morally abnegating remove. Why waste the lines directed toward the audience, let alone the audience plants, if that energy simply becomes a comic device? Small fucking gripe, people: art marches on nonetheless, and you'd be wise to get yourself to the final performances of Bad Jazz while it's still nice and shrill.

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