Monday, October 01, 2012

THEATER: Violence Is Hard to Understand, So Let's Be Vague and Comedic About It

Photo/Sandra Coudert
Writer/director Adam Rapp's latest play, Through the Yellow Hour, has once again transformed the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater: one enters through a narrow graffitied corridor as blue-bonneted women stamp zeroes onto your neck and solemnly tell you that "You have been accounted for." Passing through a curtain made of garbage bags, the interior is a bombed-out ruin: the stage's ceiling has caved in, the walls are stripped and rusty, and emergency bulbs are strung across the walls like a most decidedly unfestive series of Christmas lights. Percussive gunfire echoes through invisible surround-sound speakers; the sound of explosions shake through the floor's subwoofer. There is, incidentally, a body on stage, sprawled in a drug-induced stupor by the clawed leg of a bathtub.

We're at some point in the future, in what remains of Ellen's (Hani Furstenberg) Lower East Side apartment; if the stakes are not already set high enough by Andromache Chalfant's amazing set design and Christian Frederickson's haunting soundscape, the play begins with Ellen shooting an insane intruder (Brian Mendes) and leaving his corpse in the corner -- "He adds texture to the room," she jokes, grimly. And so long as Rapp remains vague about things, focused more on the micro -- day-to-day survival -- and less on the macro -- the potentially Muslim "Egg Heads" who attacked the United States with germs and proceeded to castrate the men -- these textures are more than evocative enough to carry us Through the Yellow Hour.

In the first of three scenes, Ellen, a former nurse, barters for the infant child of Maude (Danielle Slavick), and it's a heartbreaking introduction to the dire toughness both women have bottled up within them. They have each turned to self-medication and have bartered their sex as needed, and the line between the two -- if any -- seems arbitrarily defined by the fact that Ellen has a stash of drugs, supplies, and a half-functional weapon. In the equally effective second scene, Hakim (Alok Tewari), brings news of the death of Ellen's husband -- with whom he was tortured and castrated -- and we see the depths of her determination as she forces Hakim, at gunpoint, to provide every detail of their treatment, even as she retches, weeps, and collapses to the floor. In a Dilaudid-dosed dreamstate, time -- and reality -- slips away.

The third and final scene, however, is on far shakier territory, and exposes the dangers of having a vague plot, a drifting story, a "lost" world. The theme is clear: whereas Ellen originally clung to the idea of having the baby that she and her husband had not been able to (and now might never have the opportunity to) conceive, she can no longer stomach having a child on her own, and turns instead to angelically untouched visitors (Joanne Tucker and Matt Pilieci) from a eugenics-like farm that aims to rebreed and rebuild the world, trading them her baby for a fourteen-year-old boy. (By which I mean an innocent, still-functioning penis.) Beyond the fact that this is a screaming deus ex machina that violates the internal logic of the play, the scene itself lacks the human connection produced by the claustrophobic scenes that preceded it (the second scene takes place largely in the dark), and falls too easily into a benevolent poetry. It also calls far too much attention to the unfleshed Big Ideas of the play -- War, Hope, Survival -- and the fact that Rapp has nothing new to say about them.

The same can be said for Jon Kern's Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want To Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them, which I didn't like any more when it was written by Christopher Durang and called Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. (To be clear, they're different plays. Also, a slight disclaimer: I briefly worked alongside Jon Kern at a former job.) The play doesn't officially open until October 17th, so take some if not all of the following with a grain of salt, but this slapstick-y production, which asserts that its aim is to humanize its trio of terrorists -- young would-be-martyr Rahim (Utkarsh Ambudkar), embittered supporter Yalda (Nitya Vidyasagar), and the delusional brains of the operation, Qala (William Jackson Harper) -- never really manages to slow down enough to connect. Throw in their stoner neighbor, Jerome (Steven Boyer), who believes that he's finally found a purpose, and the whole thing is just a joke factory. Strong as the performances might be, Peter DeBuois's broad direction hasn't yet found a way to focus on the sweetness shared between Rahim and Yalda, nor has it managed to find a way to pave over the gaping plotholes required to keep Jerome onstage.

The problem with Modern Terrorism is that it attempts to be taken seriously -- which is a bit like expecting an episode in which Bart befriends an innocent boy whose parents are plotting to overload Springfield's nuclear reactor to actually mean something. (I bring this up because Kern now writes on the staff of The Simpsons). I'm a huge fan of William Jackson Harper; that his portrayal of Qala reeks so utterly of Wile E. Coyote seems more a failing of the script than the actor. (The same might be said of the shades of Scooby-Doo's Shaggy in Boyer's role.) The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity used the buffoonery of professional wrestling to actually make a point; Modern Terrorism can't stop snickering at the sight of Rahim wearing a tightly-pinching underwear bomb, or at his cultural obsession with Star Wars -- at least, not long enough to give emotional weight to the fact that Yalda's innocent husband was accidentally blown up by an American missile, or that culture can just as easily unite as divide us.

It's not as if the play's final image -- two humans (nothing more, nothing less) huddled together, sharing a song through an iPod -- isn't an effective one. It's merely that, even with blood seriously splattered across a wall, it feels stale and unearned. We shouldn't just "get" the message of the play -- it should sneak up on us.

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