Strawdog Theatre


Center Theater

For what seems an extraordinary length of time during the second half of Strawdog’s Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, actress Mary Kanaley Nahser cries–not little trickles down the cheeks but a great flow of tears dropping off her chin onto the floor. Surprisingly, this does not impair her delivery in the least. One still wonders, however, what effect repeating this display three times a week for six weeks will have on her psychological state.

Her display of emotion is not inappropriate to Richard Cameron’s play, and not only because it depicts women with good reason to cry. Can’t Stand Up shares with classical tragedy an orderly, fixed shape that can contain extravagant horror and pathos. But otherwise Can’t Stand Up bears no resemblance to tragedy. Its pivotal character is not a basically good but flawed human being; he’s the most repugnant embodiment of evil since Polyphemus the Cyclops. Royce seems all the more evil because he’s never seen, only talked about. He and his also invisible antithesis, Al Janney, are the forces determining the actions of the three women whose monologues make up Cameron’s play.

At the start, Jodie is a child of ten, the only friend of a mentally retarded boy, Janney. Lynette is 14, a shy child sheltered by her parents and her religion whose only wish is for misfortune to pass her by. Ruby is 18 and the girlfriend of Royce, the leader of a pack of ruffians who make cruel sport of Janney. One day they chase him to the top of a quarry cliff, from which the frightened boy falls to his death, in full sight of his young companion.

Eight years later Jodie has recovered from her childhood trauma and works as a hairdresser. She recalls enough of her early experiences to be empathetic, sharply scolding her shopmates when they tease a new hairdresser. Ruby, after bearing Royce’s son, breaking with him, then briefly reconciling, has ordered Royce out of her life and that of the son she will not share with him. The gentle Lynette has fallen into a marriage with Royce–not with any apparent affection–and tolerates his sadistic abuse with the acquiescence she feels her religion demands of her.

In a small town, one could argue, Lynette’s plight would be noticed and public pressure brought to bear. And Royce is such a badass it’s arguable he’d have been deep-sixed by one of his equally violent cronies years before the narrative picks up again. One could also take the playwright to task for a resolution that’s predictable even to those who have managed to avoid the many recent accounts of battered spouses. Once we’ve seen Jodie and Ruby defy Royce’s domination, the rules of dramatic structure tell us Lynette must take a turn.

Suspense is not the point of Cameron’s play, however. Can’t Stand Up is an exploration of the social processes that allow the abused to be abused. Though Lynette’s pentecostal religion would seem to implicate the church as one of these destructive influences, it’s not the only culprit. A culture that defines women’s courage in terms of endurance rather than action cannot help but elevate victimization and martyrdom. Cameron offers no answers to these insidious problems, save to urge the effectiveness of resistance. Common knowledge has it that bullies are usually cowards blustering out of fear; Royce mistreats his wife because he can do so with impunity. The intensity of Lynette’s resistance results from the delay in taking action.

Can’t Stand Up is written as three interwoven monologues spoken by three women who rarely move and who meet one another only in the last few minutes of the play. This structure calls for nearly superhuman concentration from the performers, who must idle at a precise emotional intensity for however long it takes the next speaker to finish. Under the direction of Larry Novikoff, all three actresses–Katie Dawson as Jodie, Kerry Richlan as Ruby, and Nahser as Lynette–prove capable in their challenging roles, maintaining their dignity and compassion throughout the grisly tales of cruelty and suffering. (That dignity was doubly difficult for Richlan, whose Ruby drew comfortable chuckles from the audience–even among the enlightened, apparently, the misfortunes of a promiscuous woman are more ridiculous than those of a virgin.)

Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down is not a perfect play, nor is it a pleasant one. But it’s an emotionally exorcising experience, a good start to Strawdog’s season.

Taking sides is not so easy in Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Through the Leaves. Whether this is the playwright’s intention or not is less clear. If Can’t Stand Up can be faulted for its facile appeal to the emotions, Through the Leaves has the opposite problem, offering us a meal so unpalatable it only grows more flavorless the longer we chew.

Martha has inherited her father’s butcher shop and made quite a thriving enterprise of it, but worries she may have missed something by concentrating so hard on business. So she finds herself a pig of a boyfriend–Otto, an unlettered slob who gobbles, guzzles, and fornicates amorally, hates Martha’s dog as much as the beast hates him, belittles Martha for her success, reminds her repeatedly of her homeliness and her good fortune in having him around, and threatens to leave her if she protests. “There isn’t a feminine bone in your body!” he growls. “You spend your day surrounded by dead animals. All you think about are animals.” “But now I have you,” she answers serenely.

Martha is no angel herself. She mouths all the correct slogans about her “independence” and being a “businesswoman . . . whom you can’t abuse,” but she has the irritating habit of naming the price of every gift she buys for Otto and of noting the day’s profits in her diary every evening. She also makes all the decisions about where they’ll go and how they’ll dress, pays for all their dates, and scoffs at Otto the one time that he insists on treating. She’s bewildered when Otto refuses to quit his job and come work for her as a delivery boy. She refers to him as “my Otto,” and declares “I must break him of his habit of always wanting to be the boss.” By the time she demands that he turn off the football game, reminding him that it’s her television set, we can begin to understand Otto’s rebellions against these stifling restrictions.

What we can’t understand is why these two unpleasant, self-centered people continue their obviously unsatisfying alliance. True, Martha supplies money and Otto supplies sex, but both of these commodities are easily traded with more compatible partners. And what is the playwright saying about the nature of modern male-female relationships? That they’re the result, on both sides, of a will to dominate? That what we call love is really mutual exploitation? He seems to suggest that businesswomen are materialistic ball-busters who will end up alone and lonely. Martha regrets her previous attitudes, but Otto doesn’t–which may be a clue to the author’s sympathies. But he’s failed to make us sympathize with either character.

Director Dan LaMorte, collaborating with newcomer Claus Konig, has made the most of Norbert Ruebsaat’s awkward translation (“You rumpled your feathers. You’ve experienced a slice of life”), concentrating on the subtext wherever he can find it. Eric Winzenried and Robin Witt have little to do except be hoggish and bossy, respectively; this they do with expressions so unvarying they might as well be wearing masks and reading from cue cards. Brett A. Snodgras’s basementlike set and Joe Cerqua’s well-chosen sound track produce the stark, gloomy ambience we expect of German plays (the ghost of Bertolt Brecht lingers on).