Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Fringe/Stress Positions

There's nothing pleasant about torture, but that doesn't mean a play about torture can't be fun to watch. The problem with Daniel Sweren-Becker's Stress Positions is that it's a little too fun to watch. Terrence (Duane Cooper) is a United States soldier, undergoing the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training necessary to join Delta Force. As presented to him, he knows that he only needs to last ten days, and as shown to us by director Robin A. Paterson, that shouldn't be that hard: after all, he's clothed, in an interrogation room, and only has one hand cuffed to a chair. As a result, he's one-dimensionally glib to his interrogator, John (Jed Dickson)--he's simply never pushed far enough. (After having hot coffee thrown in his face: "Sorry, I don't take cream or sugar." After being waterboarded: "Is that Aquafina? I hate that shit." He's like the Rambo of comic one-liners.)

Instead, the drama of the play comes from watching John collapse. As the commander of the SERE program, he starts breaking rules and turning off cameras, even going so far as to waterboard Terrence. Sweren-Becker lets the cat out of the bag a bit too early, too: while we start in the middle of his ninth day, we soon flash back to the first day. Normally, this would be a good dramatic choice, but understanding why John feels the need to break Terrance makes his actions less stressful (to us), not more. This goes a step further with John's second-in-command, Buzz (Matt Walker), who reminds us that John isn't acting entirely on his own: just one more level of danger removed. Ideally, we'd be thrust into Terrence's shoes, unable to tell if John's a racist, and wondering if he can trust Buzz, or if that's just a trick to get him to talk. Instead, all the cards are on the table, and the only question is whether or not John will snap or not.

It's an interesting premise, but a low-budget performance may not be the right medium for it: it's hard enough to fake a fight scene on stage, let alone to simulate torture. (David Mamet's show, The Unit, executed a similar premise in a far more convincing and affecting fashion.) On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Torturous to the audience" and 5 being "More effective than Guantanamo," Stress Positions gets a 2.5.

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