Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Killing the Boss

Photo/Martin Snyder

Eve, the activist cum educator cum playwright at the center of Catherine Filloux's new play Killing the Boss, goes missing in an unnamed Southeast Asian country after trying to assassinate its dictator and then appears in a dream long enough to tell her mother that her vision's been poisoned: she keeps seeing what others don't have. This is akin to the empath's woe: she feels too much, but in this case, without her MS-ridden husband Doug around to check her math (and check her), she's taken matters into her own hands. It's an admirable concept, and it allows Filloux to refract elements of her own life (she's French, politically active, has fought for more rights in Cambodia, and is a playwright) into the play.

Unfortunately, that effect isn't just figuratively nightmarish, it's also literally so. Director Jean Randich seems imprisoned by a text that's stretching for dark humor (the ambassador, explaining to Doug that he is now "on the ground," has her words punctuated by Doug falling out of his chair onto the floor, and his wry retort, "I guess so"), and whereas her last collaboration with Filloux, Lemkin's House, brought out their best, Killing the Boss just drags across the stage. Little is done with Sandra Goldmark's tantalizing set (goldfish bags of water are suspended in an arc across center stage, transparent tarpaulins hang like grim scrims), and Matthew E. Adelson's lights are so often used that they detract from what's happening.

The effect Filloux seems to be after is what Doug labels "a strange existential kind of hilarity," one in which the author inserts specific objects (the song "Lady in Red," a red monkey mask, or a singing Superman lunch box) to try to disassociate us from what's really happening while at the same time grounding us through cultural landmarks. And in a void, these choices might work, helping us to distinguish the dross ("In this country there are ways . . . and means." "Is this a committee?") from the gold ("Do you know what's so special about evil? . . . The way people get away with it"). Instead, the shifts in and out of narrative viewpoints and between dream and reality (far too cleanly done to make us feel much of anything) become the emphasis of the show, and not the powerful sarcasms of an exchange like this:
AMBASSADOR: The leg has caused more than a certain kind of instability . . .
DOUG: Wouldn't you call the whole country "unstable"? What's a leg . . . ?
AMBASSADOR: No, we called it calm. Comparatively. (To herself.) Abject poverty does have a calming effect.
Another problem with Killing the Boss is the lack of substance -- Eve's parents, Pierre and Monique (Edward Hajj and Dale Soules) are remarkable only in that they are French and irate at Bush, but otherwise rendered irrelevant by Doug's presence; the same goes for Sal and the Boss's bodyguard (played at bipolar ends by Alexis Camins), who are more ideas and plot points than actual flesh and blood. Sue Cremin plays the role of Eve evenly, which keeps her from making any strong choices, and John Daggett is all too entrenched in the aimless petulance of Doug. It's not altogether surprising that the strongest characters are actually the shadier ones: the entertainingly evil dictator, The Boss (Orville Mendoza, quietly channels the menace he held in Blind Mouth Singing), and the graspingly neutral Ambassador (Mercedes Herrero).

It's worth mentioning, too, that the strongest moment of Killing the Boss comes during the play within the play, the one which Sal has written for his teacher, and which Eve describes as "a brutal play [coming] from such a sweet person." The brutality both of this vignette, and the way in which Eve is forced to reenact it for The Boss, are the only moments where something actually seems to be on the line, and is accordingly the only point at which the audience is truly listening. The rest of the play, passive and uninvolved (there's no sense of the unnamed country's plight or culture -- the red monkey myth could be from anywhere), is simply killing time.

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