Thursday, April 12, 2012

THEATER: "Scotland Week"

The latest series of themed performances at the international 59E59 features two Scottish plays, directed by the playwrights, that deal with loss via character's reactions to historic (or near-historic) events.

Federer Versus Murray

There's a bit of feeling out of the opponent at the start of every tennis match, a case of nerves, a wobbly serve, the need to get a sense of the give of the grounds. That's as it is for Gerda Stevenson's Federer Versus Murray, only this unease never fully goes away, mainly because despite the five-scene (five-set) structure, the tennis seems incidental to the script, and when it's directly referred to ("Game, set, and match..."), it comes across as self-serving cheese: a playwright reaching for low-hanging connections. Were the entire play centered around that single match, with Flo (Stevenson) rooting for the uncontrolled and fiery Murray in her blue-and-white Scottish face-paint and her husband Jimmy (Dave Anderson) beside her with his white-and-red cross, logically and gentlemanly supporting Federer, the play might find a more natural rhythm, one that approaches the hypnotic back-and-forth of an actual court.

Instead, the scenes too closely echo one another, with the couple arguing about the same thing -- namely, Flo's inability to cope with the death of their saxophone-playing solder of a son, and Jimmy's alternate form of grief: namely, clipping articles that "prove" the fraudulence of the war and obsessing over tennis. The scenes are broken up by Ben Bryden playing saxophone in the shadows, and while the music is lovely, it's too on the nose, particularly in his final appearance, dressed in an army uniform. (We get it, we get it.) Unnecessarily adding to the drama is a mysterious, unseen (but smelled) gentleman caller for Flo; only briefly addressed in the play's off-kilter fifth scene (which jumps several months into the future to offer a dreamy hope for the two), it serves only as a distraction.

Which is ironic, considering that the distracted parts are what work best in Federer Versus Murray. That is to say, the moments in which Flo and Jimmy manage to forget their shared tragedy feel entirely natural and lived in. The way they talk about their daughter, dismiss or support one another's foolish yet romantic dreams (Jimmy longs to visit Basel, the home of his beloved Federer), or share a pot of tea is lovely. Until, of course, one of them accidentally mentions how they've done their best to "soldier" on, at which point roses are thrown, letters are scattered, or the two are feebly pushing and pulling on one another. (Stevenson, who writes, directs, and stars, would do well to hire a fight choreographer or second pair of eyes to assist her with these sequences; they seem far too tentative and telegraphed.) That's the cost of trying to cram five unique scenes into a single hour: things get rushed, exaggerated, and lose their sincerity. Connections don't have room for subtlety: they're bellowed and pointed out, to deleterious effect.

That's rugby, not tennis, and while there are some moments of genuine excitement in Federer Versus Murray, the final result comes up short.

A Slow Air

There's no doubt that David Harrower (Blackbird) has a story to tell in his latest piece, A Slow Air, but he may have chosen the wrong medium for it. Athol (Lewis Howden) and Morna (Susan Vidler) are estranged siblings who haven't seen each other for fourteen years, and it makes narrative sense for them to address the audience, not each other, in a series of slowly converging monologues. But the unseen linchpin between their reunion, Morna's twenty-one year old son, Joshua, hints at a flaw; a budding graphic-novel artist (graphic indeed: he's obsessed with the 2007 terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport), what excites him is the gutter. "That's what they call they white space between the boxes o a comic. Where the unseen story happens before the next picture is drawn. Anythin can happen in the gutter, he said." However, Harrower's staging has no gutter, only a heavily accented and almost metronomic pace (the running time, claims the program, is exactly 82 minutes) that makes the action seem inevitable, not filled with possibility.

This stifling atmosphere sucks much of the life from the production, and while that's doubtless some of Harrower's conceit -- Morna is locked into a string of meaningless men and a thankless cleaning job, while Athol's tile-laying business is as stalled as his marriage once was -- it doesn't make for compelling theater. As is often the case of monologue-heavy shows, especially ones that may be difficult for some audiences to hear, A Slow Air is better read than seen; it's begging to be a short story, particularly with all the subtle echoes. I entirely missed one of the nicer bits of resonance, in which after Athol has shown Joshua old family portraits in which his father would photograph them frozen in mid-air, Joshua attempts to catch Athol doing the same -- in the abandoned house where those Glasgow terrorists plotted. It's a cruel circle of what passes for "normalcy," and the icy grips of a life interrupted.

A Slow Air picks up in its final fifteen minutes, with Athol and Morna now describing, in a faster-paced back-and-forth, the same events, and finally letting out their emotions while doing so. And yet, even here this poetic work holds back, leaving many of the plots (Morna's unspoken sickness, Athol's past infidelities) hanging, like the final image of the play, in mid-air.

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