Circle Theatre


Vamp Theatre

at the Conservatory

Playwright and filmmaker Neil Labute seems to bring out people’s anxieties. In 1991, during a New York University production of his Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, an audience member stood up midperformance and bellowed, “Kill the playwright!” More recently LaBute, a Mormon convert, was “disfellowshipped,” a form of ecclesiastical punishment one step shy of excommunication, because one of the three one-acts in “Bash” depicted Mormons as homophobes.

But until I saw Circle Theatre’s powerful, troubling production of “Bash,” the third time of four I’ve experienced the play, I hadn’t understood why LaBute’s works inspire such violent reactions. Populated by predators, sociopaths, and murderers who in many ways appear normal, LaBute’s plays and films can be disquieting (he wrote and directed In the Company of Men), but so are lots of plays. We live in disquieting times. And Shakespeare, who wrote frequently about moral monsters, is required reading for adolescents.

When I saw “Bash” last fall, I left disdaining the play as a symptom rather than a critique of moral decay. In that production, “Bash” seemed an intellectual exercise, a clever little nihilistic machine spiced with violence. The one-act Iphigenia in Orem was just a contemporary version of Euripides’ classic, in which Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter to appease the gods, and Medea Redux just a recasting of another Euripides play, about a woman who takes vengeance on her husband by killing their children. Too often a writer retelling an old tale just wants to show off his knowledge.

But in retrospect I see that I blamed LaBute for flaws that actually came out of the performances. Even good actors are drawn to the most outrageous aspects of their roles. Anyone playing John, the homophobe in A Gaggle of Saints, might be tempted to emphasize his bloodlust. But performers who ignore the utter banality of LaBute’s remarkably unself-aware characters can’t communicate what’s most horrifying about them.

It wasn’t until I saw the four virtuoso performances in Jeffrey Cass’s staging of “Bash” for Circle Theatre that I realized LaBute was attacking the obvious but widespread fallacy that appearances are everything. The college couple in A Gaggle of Saints–a sweet, oblivious Laura Bush type, Sue, and John, the sexually ambivalent frat rat who incites a gay bashing–are to all appearances perfect. At least that’s how Candace Thompson and Hunter Stiebel play them in the Circle Theatre production. Thompson is attractive, upbeat, and mindless, and Stiebel is similarly positive and good-looking, even a little pretty. Every production I’ve seen of this play acknowledges the girl’s moral blindness and the boy’s homoerotic feelings. What Circle Theatre communicates, and other productions haven’t, is that for all their moral culpability these two remain gorgeous and appealing.

This one-act is structured as two side-by-side monologues, and Stiebel and Thompson work hard to create a subtle erotic bond with the audience. His performance is full of sly flirtations: the cute smile, sparkling eyes, mischievous glances, and ingratiating wisecracks that have made many a movie star’s career. Thompson affects the wrinkled nose, amused smile, and playful mock surprise of a woman who knows she’s attractive even as she reveals something damaging about a friend or rival. It’s apparent that though the boy commits the crime, the girl’s aggressive obliviousness makes her complicit. LaBute’s trick in this piece is to make us fall in love with the couple even as he reveals the blackness in their souls.

LaBute plays a similar game in the other two one-acts–the characters win our trust and then shock us–and Cass’s actors realize these intentions beautifully. In the monologue Iphigenia in Orem Robert L. Oakes disarms us with his self-effacing demeanor as a perfectly likable corporate lackey. It’s only when we’ve completely opened up to him, accepting his need to get something off his chest, that he admits to a crime so repellent it’s hard not to flinch. Thompson plays the sole character in Medea Redux similarly. Here she’s the opposite of the confident deb in A Gaggle of Saints, portraying a confused, somewhat dim young woman whose story of an innocent crush on her seventh-grade teacher charms, then horrifies.

From time to time LaBute has described himself as a satirist. And he has a satirist’s obsession with morality. It’s certainly possible to play his characters as caricatured beasts, but then it becomes far too easy to pass judgment on them and dismiss them. A writer more in the tradition of Zola and Dreiser than of Swift and Mark Twain, LaBute is a naturalist who faithfully represents rather than exaggerates what he sees. When his characters are played straight–re-created in all their hellish complexity–they’re utterly infuriating. Are they true to life or not? If they are, we’re disgusting creatures.

Dreiser and Zola knew how dangerous it was to hold a mirror up to the world; reformers who claimed to be battling the social ills Dreiser documented in Sister Carrie condemned the novel for its downbeat approach. For LaBute’s message to get through, the actors have to see the ordinariness of their characters. Circle Theatre makes LaBute a danger to society and the often produced “Bash” a brave evening.

In Vamp Theatre’s well-meaning but toothless interpretation of “Bash,” the actors (all newcomers to Chicago) spend their energy just getting the lines right. There’s nothing left over for nuance or style.

The night I saw the production, Iphigenia in Orem was canceled without explanation. But then no one in the show was really up to the challenge. In A Gaggle of Saints the actors aren’t very convincing as a couple or as spoiled middle-class suburbanites. John comes across as such a hothead that we’re hardly surprised to find he’s beaten up a stranger. And Sue is totally lacking in the manipulative good-girl charms that Thompson gives her, with the result that we side neither with her nor against her. In Thompson’s characterization, we do both.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolack.