Friday, May 07, 2010

Jacob's House

Photo/Justin Hoch

On the one hand, Jacob’s House is obviously a retelling of the Biblical pseudo-hero Jacob, a play meant to show us the angels—and demons—we must wrestle with in order to live and love in the world today. On the other, it is also a neat parallel for playwright August Schulenburg’s struggle to write the play in the first place. Just as Jacob wrestles with an angel, so too does Schulenburg, his back to the wall after being denied (at the last minute) the rights to Archibald MacLeish’s 1950 adaptation of the story of Job. Just as Jacob earns himself a limp and a blessing, so too does Schulenburg, producing—out of a feverish weekend of writing—a somewhat crippled but brand-new play for Flux Theatre Ensemble (his company).

It’s no surprise that the framing device for Jacob’s House focuses on Jacob’s three heirs, Dinah (Jane Lincoln Taylor), Joe (Zack Calhoon), and Tamar (Jessica Angleskahn) arguing over who gets the inheritance, and whether or not it is a blessing or a curse: these are surely the same things Schulenburg wrestled with. But sadly, whereas Jacob was blessed with time, which enabled him to fail and rebuild from scratch three times, Schulenburg has been forced to rush this play into production, and its unedited strains are evident. Too much of the play is handed over to sloppily written characters like Tamar (no offense to Angleskahn), who are nothing more than provocateurs with mouths big enough for a too-clever writer to dump his excesses out of. “Non-ninja, would that be a nonja?” she asks. Later, she coins the term “ungel” for a non-angel, and despite being treated as a low-bred country girl who calls everyone “Sug,” also says things like “She spoke with the pompatus of love.”

Even when decently acted—like Isaiah Tanenbaum’s comic appearances as the sinisterly leprechaun-like “Messenger”—it’s impossible to salvage lines like “all preggers with twins and what not.” The end result is meant to be Bible Studies for Williamsburg Hipsters, and sometimes it is, as with the description of Jacob’s relationship with Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel: “Two sisters.” “And they were both in love with him. “Kinky.” But between the staccato pacing of scenes, the uneven tone of the dialogue, and the rambling storytelling—particularly a lengthy riff from Laban—Schulenburg winds up pinned by his own creation. The story he’s updating was meant to deliver simple moral messages, and that’s lost here.

What works, and works well, is the trickster folklore that Schulenburg has appropriated, especially the way he has transformed Jacob into the ultimate con artist. The finest scenes in the play focus around tricks—like the stealing of the birthright—and these are always entertaining bits, bits that also say a lot about Modern America and the pride we take in unethical loopholes. Matthew Archambault does a fine job in the role, too, growing from the scared but prideful boy who tricks Essau (Anthony Wills Jr.) into trading his gun for some “poisoned” potato stew to the confident cow-breeder who announces to Rachel (Kelli Dawn Holsopple) that he’s going to marry her and, of course, to the swaggering man who knowingly gets hitched to Leah (Tiffany Clementi) as well. It’s no surprise that the majority of these scenes are set in the past, where they can avoid getting hung up on the exaggeratedly showy storytelling device.

Schulenburg is no stranger to having a direct narrator, as in his last piece The Lesser Seductions of History. But there, he spoke to a more personal era of change, and he had more immediate ideas to throw around—and, modeled after Our Town, a stronger theatrical basis than that of the Bible, which is (almost by definition) preachy. Only the rare moments at which Dinah, Joe, and Tamar actually get involved in their scenes—recreating an earlier, formative, intimate moment—do these characters justify their weight. These small moments also play into the talented Kelly O’Donnell’s strengths as a visual director: when past and present collide, she can neatly juxtapose the two. When they remain awkwardly separated, there is little she can do other than to store them silently in a corner of Jason Paradine’s neatly cluttered attic set, along with all the other bric-a-brac.

Through it all, the play parallels the author's struggle: in the most effectively tragic scene, Jacob sacrifices more and more of himself--legs, arms, eyes, brain--in an effort to buy the time he needs to wrap things up, to finish. Schulenburg has admirably sacrificed much to mount this play--and it's certainly better than nothing, especially for the actors who are given a chance to showcase their skills. But both he and Jacob do eventually run out of time, and so Jacob's House is left incomplete, rushing to a hasty end and a deus ex angelica, leaving threads unjustified and other threads untied. Hopefully, with more time, more editing, the cursed parts of this play will flower into lovely blessings.

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