At the Atlantic II, in New York”s Chelsea, three plays ran in rep this summer, produced by the 25 year-old company PTP (Potomac Theatre Project, from Middlebury College, Vt.)/NYC. Three playwrights: Steven Dykes, Neil Bell, both Americans, and Howard Barker, English. Running in rep, while usual for many theatre companies in the UK and regionally here in the US, it is not done so much in New York City. The results of PTP/NYC are decidedly mixed, but that has more to do with the choice of three radically different playwrights, and three very different plays, rather than the execution. I wish PTP/NYC had thought a bit harder about what makes plays in rep successful, or what could be a common link to them all (such as theme, actors, a single playwright, a unifying country). All three playwrights are male. That is not a compelling enough link to lure theatergoers to see all three of these plays.
I would like to say a word about simulated sex onstage: I am not a fan. Unless it is done in an ironic fashion (see Edward Bond and others) or a bawdy fashion (see Howard Barker and others), it is just excruciating to sit through when done with deadpan seriousness, and so many people on their hands and knees makes me think of bruising rather than pleasuring.
Which brings me to “Territories” by Steven Dykes. “Territories” is the umbrella title for his two allegedly related one-acts, “a light gathering of dust” and “The Spoils.”
In the first, “a light gathering of dust” there is nothing in the music, costumes, accents, language or props that tells us we are in Germany; unless, of course, you read the program notes. If a play cannot stand on its own without copious quantities of notes, then it is something else entirely: baffling, meaningless, and finally, a nadir. In Dykes’ mind, using symbols in place of characters (albeit symbols who fake hump often) may signify betrayal and the Stasi, but to this audience member, it is sound and fury signifying nothing. As the “symbols,” named 1 (Alex Draper), 2 (Megan Byrne), and 3 (Stephanie Janssen), are not three-dimensional characters, one cannot help but feel that the poor actors were trapped in a cage created by Dykes. The best plays ever written and best I’ve seen have this in common: The more concrete and specific, the more universal.
“The Spoils” was a bit better, though still on the vague side: an interpreter, Shilling (Alex Draper) is brought in to question four jailed secretaries to find out their roles in “the party” of an “occupied territory” (according to the program). Sometimes Shilling helps, sometimes he hinders; his role is unclear but Draper’s characterization leans towards the professorial. Schilling cares more for the music he describes than his job or the women he interrogates. In the end, indoctrination was total and all secretaries, brainwashed.
The music was effective, quite beautiful and perhaps that was part of the problem: it was enjoyable to listen to, so I don’t understand why it would have driven any of the women mad, though if played repeatedly day and night for weeks on end, yes, anything can drive you mad, but that is difficult to dramatize. But nothing new to say here, and not terribly scary. Or enlightening.
At the conclusion of Neil Bell’s “Spatter Pattern: Or, How I Got Away with It” my friend turned to me and said, “Hitchcock would have been preferable.”
Hitchcock lined up all of his ducks in a row, then threw viewers off the scent with a MacGuffin or two, used wit and humor and built suspense masterfully, never losing sight of the characters we come to identify with and care for.
Bell, instead, creates not so much a whodunit but an I-no-longer-care-whodunit. Rather than confine the plot to two very different men: one a murder suspect, one a gay man in mourning and how their lives intersect, Bell muddies the pool by throwing in every tabloid headline he can think of. A failed screenwriter, a frustrated agent, The Iraq war, a lying teacher, gay marriage, euthanasia, a funeral home’s loss of ashes, nightclub sex, a provocative student: these and many more are hurled at the audience at breakneck speed with sometimes inappropriate humor, along with far too many cell phone calls that irritate like mosquitoes on a camping trip.
If, as happens to the screenwriter onstage, fiction mirrors fact and Bell the playwright was turned down repeatedly and decided to write this as a commercial exercise, then I suppose he has succeeded, though rather cynically. It might make a fine screenplay, but it makes a convoluted and ultimately stale, inert onstage drama. In their parts, such as they are, the actors were very fine, particularly Jeffries Thaiss as Edward Dunn, possessing an unusual mellifluous voice, and Lucy Van Atta, playing what seemed like fifty different roles. They deserve better futures plays.
Finally, the star of the three: Howard Barker’s “Victory: Choices in Reaction.” Written in 1983 but only now having its American premier, it is a raucous ride of a look at the court of Charles the II, paralleled with a widow’s search for the “bits” of her dead, drawn and quartered revolutionary husband to give him a decent burial (and her own self-realization along the way). The opening Sex Pistols songs (also used during scene changes) set the tone: this is not your staid, very-British Restoration comedy, despite period costumes.
Not on your life. With an alternately cunning, pathetic and terrifying Charles, played by the terrific David Barlow (throwing in some of rocker Freddy Mercury as well), he leads (or rather, forces) the pack with his own rutting, cursing, and debauchery. Preoccupied as he is with his own neurosis, he’s not much interested in ruling. Games interest him, as does humiliation, and gold. There is a timely interlude in a bank vault: a builder, a stockbroker, an exporter, a minister, and a chief justice explain what a bank is supposed to do after one questioned the wisdom of gold in vaults while he only gets bits of paper in the mail. This set off peals of laughter in the audience, as did the final pronouncement: “It’s a complicated subject.”
Portrayed by the estimable Jan Maxwell, the widow Bradshaw, goes though all kinds of predicaments: begging, starvation, submission, humility, and finally, a servant to the King’s tart mistress (Michaela Lieberman). Bradshaw goes back to what is left of her home, dragging a big, burlap bag of bones, with her new crippled lover and child in hand, and is happy to be standing with him in the rain: she has put the past to rest and is about to embark on her future. Then, as now, the real victory is a personal one, particularly when you have Charles the II (do substitute any president’s/prime minister’s/political party name of here) running your country. Long live Barker and the Theatre of Catastrophe!
Lisa Del Rosso 9/8/11