It's the year of the lie--not the year of the spin, the inappropriate euphemism for the wholly unanticipated failure in intelligence, wardrobe or imagination. No, the lie instead: the clearly stated--and desperately desired--untruth, offered up in the name of expedience, diplomacy or false (and temporary) communion.
In any election year, there are many opportunities to view new achievements in lie craftsmanship and technology, and this has been no exception.
Which is why I should feel grateful, I suppose, for three works in the same week that expose beloved cultural perjuries of long standing. But don't get the wrong idea: Waiting for Godot, Blood Weddings and Millworker never truly provide a confrontational (or self-righteous) rave up in the vein of Michael Moore. No, the productions at Burning Coal, Central Carolina Community College and Duke merely demonstrate what happens when lies are not dismantled--and the resulting cost in human suffering and ruined possibilities.
Innoculations against the lies to come? Well, perhaps. That, or three object lessons in what happens when lies are simply permitted to continue.
The feverish insistence of the bridal chants on the morning of Lorca's Blood Weddings have the element of nightmare to them. The Spanish revelers spin out their incantations, insisting that the morning of a wedding day be perfect, that the bride and groom awake in ceremonial finery. And all are oblivious to the approaching disaster of passion too long denied and love falsely declared. In the end, the chants ultimately say, "This is our hope as a culture, and it is blind. We would rather reinforce the myth of this marriage than prevent the catastrophe to come." It is no accident that Lorca ominously ends their chants with the observation that the wedding starts to move--like a huge bull.
Meanwhile, in Millworker, those country hymns, old-time jokes and radio patter sound so down home--until you start to figure out the ends they're being used for.
Director Ellen Bland and Drew Lasater's staged adaptation of oral narratives splits the stage and the culture of North Carolina cotton mill towns in two. On the right side of the stage, the well-fed and well-dressed denizens of the "Dixieland Family Hour" on WPGM (1037 on your AM dial) expound on the company line. As they do, farm hands in humbler garb and circumstance in the great depression listen to the enticing pitch to come work in the mills. Later, the same laborers listen as the radio sanctimoniously informs them that Roosevelt and the mill owners were both behind the National Reconstruction Act and the New Deal--and so labor unions wouldn't be necessary.
Bland and Drew Lasater's adaptation is no rosy-tinged nostalgia trip--not with increasingly stark testimony demonstrating how Northern mill owners sucked the lifeblood from unsophisticated, small town workers, kept them poor and ignorant, and then turned violent when they tried to organize. The last few narratives of Millworker explode the myth of the good old days--and reveal the social conscience at the heart of what at times is a fierce work of memory.
Waiting for Godot has always been something of an existential mirror, a classic inquiry into beliefs--be they religious, political or social--to which we give the power to indefinitely string us along. In this Burning Coal production, director David Henderson attempts to point that mirror towards the American South.
On its face, it's an intriguing concept. Two African-American characters, ostensibly placed somewhere in the Mississippi River Delta at the dawn of the 20th century, could be looking for a number of things--a better place to work, justice, racial equality, deliverance, enfranchisement. As we now know, most of these would have entailed a very long wait.
At first sight, Jennifer Baker's dusty costumes and Robert John Andrusko's set reinforce Henderson's program notes about a blues interpretation of Beckett. But Estragon and Vladimir's theatrical voices and heightened diction instantly shatter these initial conclusions about culture, time and location.
Paul Garrett and Lamont Reed neither sound nor act anything like characters waiting at a 1920s crossroads in the Mississippi Delta. Where, when--and for that matter, who--are they? With a production concept so schismatic on the surface, it's hard to say.
Henderson's production ultimately respects Beckett's text--indeed, too much so to be the "radical new interpretation" promised in the show's publicity. Likely late he realized he couldn't go both ways in the same production--breaking controversial new ground while remaining in full fidelity to the text. Plus, a white director approaching an African-American reframing of a classic would be wise to do so with some care.
For whatever reason, Henderson here has retreated to the safety of the known. Only Reed's musical opening in the second act, and Thaddeus Edwards' riveting first act soliloquy (in which Lucky simultaneously channels a holy roller, a sports salesman, a culture vulture and an earnest political commentator) give us a hint of what might have been. The rest is a serviceable, surprisingly mainstream vision of Beckett's work--not the terra incognita we were promised.
Finally, this just in: Those masters of suspense at the American Dance Festival have just disclosed their summer season, and the mix on first inspection includes a number of old standbys and surprises--including a reduction in major mainstage performances this year, from the traditional 13 to 12. To wit:
Reviews & Openings
OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS: Ark Dances, Duke Dance, The Ark, Friday-Saturday, April 9-10, $7-$5, 660-3354; The Barber of Seville (concert production), Duke Symphony Orchestra, Thursday-Saturday, April 8-10, 7:30 p.m., $10-$5, 684-4444; The Diary of Anne Frank, Raleigh Little Theater, Friday-Sunday through April 25, $19-$5, 821-3111; Luminosity, Playmakers Repertory Company, Wednesday-Sunday through May 1, $32-$10, 962-7529; New Works in Process 2004: Renegade, Hangman, Fantasy Quest & The Laundry Bastard, Duke Theater Studies, Branson Theater, Wednesday-Saturday, April 7-10, $8-$6, 684-4444; Some Things That Can Go Wrong at 35,000 Feet (workshop production), Duke Theater Studies, Sheafer Theater, Friday-Saturday, April 9-17, 684-4444; Burning Coal's High Noon at the Rialto: Falling So Slowly (staged reading), Saturday, April 10, 11 a.m. $5 suggested donation, 834-4001.
** New Jersey, New Jersey, Transactors Improv Company--Let's hope New Jersey, New Jersey is a work in progress. Composer/playwright Mark Lewis' promising show-biz musical send-up already has a fair number of laughs, and a couple of undeniable moments of comic brilliance. But at this stage, NJ, NJ mainly resembles a healthy young plant that's totally outgrown the box it was first potted in.
Initial encounters with a number of characters--like Bruce, the hapless theater naif and Mabel, his jaded hostess--are undeniably comic and rewarding. Jimmy Magoo's Bruce redefines stage fright in his memorable first number, "I've Got Something," while Rachel Klem curbs Mabel's enthusiasm (but not our enjoyment) as the emcee of the damned in an off-Broadway dive.
It's a good thing so many of these first meetings go well--particularly since Lewis' script never proceeds to develop any of his characters all that much. As a result, most get stuck just extending whatever riff they started with. It's how NJ, NJ most clearly demonstrates it hasn't yet transcended the flimsy characterizations or the weightless, stakeless situations of its improv and sketch comedy roots.
Real characters--with the capacity to develop, grow or change, that is--would explore Lewis' distaff dystopia a lot more fully than too many of these one-notes do. High school drama maven Miss Franklin's deal with devilish Broadway producer Rubin Drake could signal a real descent into a show biz underworld, but we feel cheated here when it remains entirely hypothetical. Lewis similarly notes harried casting agent Ned Parks' secret desire to chuck it all to become a lounge singer--and then, criminally, never explores that possibility. Pins, Drake's disastrous show about bowlers, is abandoned before it's fully investigated. Plot points are flipped through, but not inhabited.
Limited performer commitment--another sketch and improv bugaboo--also plagues this effort. Only Klem, Magoo, Andrea Maddox and Michele Easter effectively escaped the familiar boilerplate we saw from others on stage.
At this point one thing's clear: Sketch comedy techniques--and acting that never rises above that level--cannot take this project any further. We hope Lewis repots this show in ground where its characters can put down roots and fully explore the possibilities in the surrounding territory. As it is, far too many characters--and actors--are skating on the surface. And discard the mundane half of the libretto that doesn't take us anywhere we haven't been before. (Thursday-Saturday through April 17. Carrboro Artscenter. $15-$9. 929-2787.)
***1/2 The Lonesome West, Wordshed Productions--Be advised: the lawless frontier town conjured by the title is actually Leenane, a small village on Ireland's western coast in the 1990s, not some American cowtown 100 years before. But playwright Martin McDonagh's third and final visit there (after The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara) proves it actually is a village on the frontier of the soul--and an Earthly purgatory so unrelievedly banal that the act of suicide within its borders almost seems redundant.
So the hapless Father Welsh (John Murphy) finds when he bets the farm on reforming brothers Valene and Coleman (Matthew Spangler and Chris Chiron), a pair of grown-up live-at-home losers whose eternal, petty arguments make Cain and Abel's look like a momentary tiff in comparison. Welsh finds little help in his labors from Girleen (Sarah Kocz), the local bootleg hooch delivery girl.
Spangler and Chiron have at each other and all other comers with relish, even if matters don't always believably build to the crises in both acts. Still, McDonagh's script and this production manage to make a place godforsaken from the start even more so as things continue. And rarely has the road to perdition been better paved with worse intentions--or darker humor. (Through Sunday, April 10. Swain Hall, UNC. $12-$5. 969-7121.)