Tuesday, June 05, 2012

THEATER: Signature Theatre's "My Children! My Africa!" "Title and Deed" and "Medieval Play"

Given that Kenneth Lonergan's Medieval Play is running in the Signature's largest space, I have to wonder if artistic director James Houghton was aiming for a Dante-like vibe in the space's three current shows. Though some may argue about the occasionally muddled dramatics induced by the scholastic setting of Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa!, the outstanding cast (and stand-out Stephen Tyrone Williams) mark the production as true Paradiso. Then there's the intentionally vague and philosophically slight nothingness of Will Eno's latest, Title and Deed, in which a stranger (Conor Lovett) speaks about transience and distance with the same weight he's given to adaptations of Beckett's novels and shorts: could there be a more fitting Purgatorio? That, of course, leaves Lonergan the ignominious honor of representing Inferno with his unredeemably bad punchline of a play, Medieval Play (the lack of ingenuity extends far beyond the title): nothing here, really, that you haven't already seen a better form of in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

You see, My Children! My Africa!, even at its worst, most lecture-y and didactic moments, has the advantage of conveying real importance to American audiences. If it falls prey to schooling us, it is at least at the hands of the very gifted James A. Williams, and it is at least motivated by the relateable frustrations of his character, Mr. M., who fears for what will happen to his country when the youth finally rebel against the inequalities of Apartheid (the play takes place in the autumn of 1984). Clear passions and heartbreaks drive these lessons, as Mr. M. attempts to take two disparate debate students -- his would-be prodigy, the roiling Thami (Stephen Tyrone Williams), and the bright and affable (and white) Isabel (Allie Gallerani) -- and show them that there can be a non-violent path to unity. Fugard has the master playwright's ability to empathize with all of his characters, but given his subject matter, it's easy to assume that he writes to instruct because he truly believes that ignorance is the true root of evil. (All of the characters expound on this to one degree or another.)

If only we knew each other, if only we were willing to listen, we might be able to actually move forward -- which is how the play begins, with Isabel's arguments in favor of women's equality beating out Thami's societal defense (in an all-boys school, nonetheless). The other argument Fugard makes is that "Without words, a man can't think": that's what makes the pending student boycott so awful. In order to fight for freedom, Thami must now give up certain other freedoms, including the most important of all: the ability to think for one's self, to be something other than an animal. This is how the didactic dialogue transcends itself: it is spoken with breathless conviction and staged, by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, with real sparks flaring up, despite the lack of actual contact between any two characters. 

The opposite is true of Will Eno's Title and Deed, which seems to operate in a vacuum. Christine Jones's set hangs geometric shapes in mid-air, looking like shrapnel frozen in time, and Ben Stanton's lighting is plain and straightforward: no tricks up these sleeves, it announces. The same can be said for Andrea Lauer's unassuming costume: Conor Lovett's character, after all, can be from anywhere except here, and is meant to be as nondescript as possible. Personally, this sort of work makes me uncomfortable -- fidgety -- and structurally, the show has even less of a narrative than Eno's Thom Pain. At the very least, however, one can appreciate how far away Lovett appears to be, even when he's standing on a narrow sliver of stage near the front row. (Or how dedicated he is: even as a fire alarm interrupted the performance I attended, he remained all but frozen on the stage, to the extent that if not for the momentousness of the alarm, you could easily have assumed it was a part of the show.)

In any case, Title and Deed hints at a sign-signifier sort of relationship, or the noun and verb, the connection between the here and there, the way in which things are done. Eno's choice, then, to do so little is a brave one, as are his imprecise "translations" of famous idioms: "The eyes are the windows of the eyes" or "Home is where the placenta is buried." But it's also a dangerous one: the lack of momentum or real connectivity between moments means that you could basically run the show in any order, and that's not exactly a mirror of life . . . more an example of lifelessness. (Once you're dead, every moment is the same.) Being a critic here is more like being a dream analyst . . . but then again, sometimes dead air is just dead air. 

And of course, sometimes noise is just noise, as is the case with Kenneth Lonergan's Medieval Play, a work that had to have been produced under threat of thumbscrews. The work begins with Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan) shooting the shit in a weird hybrid vernacular that lazily mixes "ye" and "fuck" (one assumes for shock value). The two soldiers are pillagers of the lowest order -- though they're wise enough to think through the sociopolitical changes the current Hundred Years' War (it's 1376) will bring about: anything to get a laugh, right? Things change, however, when Sir Ralph, motivated by a sudden sense of morality, refuses to rape an abbey full of nuns, and instead contracts his company to Cardinal Robert of Geneva. Unfortunately for him, the church is just as bloody, and his attempts to leave it behind to do real good -- let alone to define it -- are constantly undone by his baser instincts and his poorer timing. This, incidentally, is Lonergan's point, which he gets around to after two-and-half long-winded hours; Catherine of Siena (Heather Burns) narrates as Pope Clement VIII (John Pankow) and Pope Urban VI (Anthony Arkin) send their armies to fight the Great Schism, and as Ralph faces his once-loyal companion, Alfred, he announces "Oh well, some day things'll be better." (Except they're not. Get it?)

The script offers slim pickings to its actors, and only the oversexed and Valley Girl-like Halley Feiffer really tackles it with enough energy to bring home the laughs. (Okay, C. J. Wilson and Kevin Geer have a few fine character moments, too.) As for the rest of it, it's undone -- like Ralph's attempts to do good -- by Lonergan's self-indulgent direction. Admittedly, the show doesn't open for another three days, but there isn't a single joke that doesn't go on at least fifty percent too long (the bland fight sequences, especially between Niccolo and Ralph; a sequence detailing the importance of "modern etiquette"), to say nothing of all the material that's been left in far beyond its expiration date (the whoring and bullying done by some French cardinals, the idol-worship directed at Catherine of Sienna). The most genuine laugh is an ad-libbed one, when the knights draw their swords on the audience after a cell-phone rings: "What the fuck is that?" 

The South Park creators can be forgiven for occasionally plucking the low-hanging fruit that surrounds them -- they're often writing, directing, and producing an episode in only seven days. Walt Spangler, who has designed an un-impressive cardboard set, can be forgiven, as his work is still more substantial than (and compliments) the playwright/director's. It's hard to forgive Lonergan, however, for anything here: this underacted, overwrought, repetitive, juvenile, and largely unfunny Medieval Play deserves nothing less than a swift excommunication.

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