Friday, April 08, 2011

THEATER: Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter

Photo/Larry Cobra
"Forgiveness is the easiest way to ignore shit that ain't pleasant!" shouts Dexel (Jordan Tisdale) as he attempts to reinsert himself (after a long estrangement) into the life of his half-sister, Contessa (Mara Lileas). So it's more than a little surprising that Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter -- an early play by Derek Ahonen (revised for this production) -- is filled with so much forgiveness and unpleasantness. As the volume ratchets up, the characters grow more melodramatic, and the situations flaunt plausibility, it becomes all too easy to ignore their motivations and underlying truths, and to fixate on the shock of it all: two lesbians, Contessa and Jackie (Anna Stromberg), have raised a spoiled daughter, Garance (Sarah Roy), who spends her time dressing in blackface and cannibalizing housewives at random. Dexel raped Contessa when they were both fifteen; Jackie is a fall-down drunk who has been enabled by her repressed wife. What needs to be a tragic dissection of American values is instead a comic distortion of them, a play that is so many sheets to the wind that it's barely intelligible.

In Ahonen's previous shows for the Amoralists, conventions have always been subverted for some deeper reason -- the uniting religion of Amerissiah; the passions of Happy in the Poorhouse; the utopianism of their best work, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side -- but with Daughter, which purports to be about the necessity of family, the sight of a cannibal giving a rapist a massage is just that, and nothing more. To be more accurate, when the theatrical Garance finally makes her appearance and is given the opportunity to explain her actions, she simply screams at the top of her lungs -- as she did as a child at piano recital -- and sticks out her tongue. It's a cry for attention for the sake of attention, and has as much to do with the lack of a father figure in her life as her insistence on speaking with an English accent has to do with her "hatred" of America. Under all that, Ahonen is struggling with America's paradoxical split between puritanical and excessive values, but by so easily resolving the absurd dramas of the play -- Oh, let's just move to Israel; Say, let's find that daughter I left at the adoption agency -- we don't rubberneck long enough to feel involved or implicated.

Ahonen's direction shows an awareness of the play's breakneck speed, and frequently slows down, but this inadvertently has the opposite effect as intended, for it exaggerates the comic portions -- see Garance, sneaking around like a ninja in her burqua -- while telegraphing and diminishing the serious portions. Significance isn't created by placing a hideously lengthy pause between two characters: it is earned. This extends to the cast, as well, which needs to find reasons for their actions beyond their being directed to do so. Ms. Lileas approaches Contessa -- rightly so -- with a strong backbone and resilience, but is time and time again forced to abandon that strength for the sake of physical comedy, so much so that she ends up a cipher. As for Ms. Stromberg and Ms. Roy, who are asked to play "drunk" and "crazy": they come across as well-acted but motivation-less moods, not characters. Only the repentant Mr. Tisdale, whose AIDS-afflicted Dexel realistically struggles with reasons to stay and put up with all this shit, comes across as a character in full, which is all the more a shame given how rich Alfred Schatz's kitchen/living-room set and noisy Brian Lazuras's sound design is.

The Amoralists have the components to put on good, original theater, and have boldly widened their company in this, their fifth straight year of productions, but at this point, they seem to be running on fumes. Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter still has the manic energy of their past work, but it lacks the head-rolling conviction that made me fall for them in the first place.

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