Gateway Theatre Company
at Red Bones Theatre
Theatre: Ground Up
at the Splinter Group Studio
The cliche is that personal fulfillment is bad for one’s art–that it is only the work of the repressed and the depressed that burns with poetic passion, that requited love leads to complacency. Surely there must be people out there who lead wonderfully fulfilled lives and create brilliant works of art, but you seldom see their stories onstage. Too intimidating maybe. Or perhaps just too dull.
Anna in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This feels she must extinguish or suppress personal passion so that she can achieve her goals as a choreographer. While still a dancer, Anna led a safe personal life; she had a traditionally romantic but highly unexciting relationship with a screenwriter boyfriend, Burton, innocently cuddled with her gay roommate Larry, and channeled any intense emotions or erotic feelings into her performances with her other gay roommate, Robby. But when Robby dies in a freak boating accident and his very heterosexual brother Pale enters her life, the clear dividing line Anna has established between the personal and the artistic begins to blur.
In many ways, Pale seems to embody all the qualities the other characters in Wilson’s play seek to repress–uncompromisingly emotional, he almost appears to have leapt out of one of Anna’s dances. When he’s sad, he blubbers and bawls; when he’s angry, he punches and swears; when he’s tired, he curls up in a ball and snores contentedly; and when it’s time to make love–to paraphrase Matt Groening–he performs like a crazed weasel.
When Anna succumbs to the temptations Pale represents, at first it’s a disaster, destroying her cushy relationship with Burton. But once she’s able to shut both Burton and Pale out of her life, she hurls herself with unprecedented abandon into her work and makes the most successful dances of her career. For Burton, Anna’s rejection stimulates his most inspired script in years. At the close of the play, when Anna and Pale are reunited in a desperate embrace, Wilson suggests a happy ending from an emotional standpoint but a feeling of loss from the artistic. Anna’s deep, strong emotions apparently cannot be divided between Pale and dance. Just as Robby’s death led to Pale’s arrival, her relationship with Pale could well lead to the death of her art.
Although Wilson’s use of fire to symbolize artistic and erotic passion gets to be a little much after a while (having Larry sing Bruce Springsteen’s “Oh, Oh, Oh, I’m on Fire” is not exactly subtle), the pinpoint accuracy of his characters and dialogue cannot be denied. Anna’s struggle between the need to control her environment and the desire to overcome her repression is particularly well realized. And Larry’s razor-sharp observations on Anna’s life-style are wickedly funny.
Watching the play is sort of like eavesdropping on the neighbors on a particularly eventful night. It’s unusual for me to wake up and have trouble remembering whose apartment I’d been visiting the night before, then realize I’d been in the audience watching a play. Such confusion is either evidence of the lingering effects of leftover Family Bean Curd for dinner or a tribute to the incredibly well executed performances in Gateway Theatre Company’s production of Wilson’s play.
In fact most of the troubles here come from Wilson’s script. Admirably structured and the work of a first-class dramatist, it nevertheless falters in making repression the focus of much of what happens onstage: the characters’ reckless feelings are described, not shown, so they exist primarily in the minds of the audience and the actors. Not that we have to witness Anna’s dance or Anna and Pale going at it in order to understand their smoldering passions. But since for the most part when we see Anna and Pale together he’s slobbering over her and about to pass out, what we see can’t possibly correspond to what we’re led to believe is happening onstage.
Perhaps this is the reason Jennifer Avery and David Mendes give superbly believable performances as Anna and Pale yet never seem to connect. There’s some very fine acting here, but the chemistry is missing–the one element detracting from an otherwise successful and lifelike production.
Theatre: Ground Up tackles the issues of unrequited love and artistic triumph in a less coherent way in its production of Ken Prestininzi’s The Hole. Inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevski’s Notes From Underground, Prestininzi’s play concerns the relationship between an obsessive performance artist and a prostitute, Liza, who lives near his hole and disturbs the one-man show about the life of a mouse he’s rehearsing.
By turning Dostoyevski’s former government worker into a performance artist, Prestininzi creates a work of social and theatrical rather than political satire, ridiculing the writer’s self-aggrandizement, the meaningless homilies he scribbles on pieces of paper, and his hackneyed fantasy of leading the prostitute onto the path of virtue. The artist’s hypocrisy is revealed in the way his “concern” for Liza is combined with incredibly rude behavior. It’s almost as if every time the artist feels something like sympathy or affection he must counteract it to prevent losing his outsider status, the basis of his alleged artistry.
Prestininzi leaps back and forth between the artist’s rehearsal, his readings of Dostoyevski’s story, and his real and imagined encounters with Liza. But though The Hole is certainly ambitious, unfortunately it doesn’t hold together. And because it’s told from the perspective of a rather irritating and egotistical protagonist, the play quickly loses any charm it might have had.
One would hope that an updated Notes From Underground might give Liza more depth than the original did. But here she’s less a human being than a programmed series of questions and responses. And if her shallowness is meant to highlight the artist’s lack of imagination when it comes to women, it’s not an approach that’s dramatically interesting.
As the artist, or Underground Man, Loren Rubin demonstrates a hell of a lot of athletic ability, but his energy is not well spent. Under the direction of Prestininzi and Kate Hendrickson (who also plays Liza), Rubin is afforded the opportunity to writhe about, jump, pontificate, scream, and update Marcel Marceau’s classic pantomime of a man who eats hearts (Rubin excretes them as well). Rubin and Hendrickson throw themselves into their characters with admirable conviction, but rarely do they make The Hole seem anything more than a confused and pretentious exercise.