Stone Circle Theatre Ensemble
at the Performance Loft, Second Unitarian Church of Chicago
Spoils of War
at Center Theater
By Adam Langer
The creepiest characters are the ones whose evil actions derive from all-too-recognizable human impulses. Like Travis Bickle before him, John Hinckley was just trying to impress his dream date when he opened fire on Ronald Reagan. And who was the Unabomber but a latter-day Henry David Thoreau, a social critic twisted about ten notches to the right on the nut-o-meter?
The masturbating little creep at the center of John Fowles’s The Collector–Frederick, who calls himself Ferdinand–is a lepidopterist who suggests the obsessiveness of both Norman Bates and Humbert Humbert (the author of Lolita had a famous passion for butterfly collecting). Unspeakably lonely and terribly shy, Ferdinand is driven by his natural desire for love, beauty, and companionship to a terrible act, kidnapping and imprisoning a charming art student he cannot bring himself to ask out. And the 16-year-old protagonist of Michael Weller’s family drama Spoils of War expresses his perfectly understandable wish to see his parents reunited in a vicious series of acts involving deceit and abuse. In both cases, though to different extents, what makes these characters’ actions so frightening is their commonplace source.
Fowles’s The Collector–adapted for the Stone Circle Theatre Ensemble by artistic director Jessica McCartney and directed by Jennifer Shook–is at heart a horror story despite allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and occasional critiques of the British class system. The 1965 film of the same name, starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar and directed by William Wyler, was advertised with the tag line “You won’t dare open your mouth, but you’ll be screaming for her to escape!” In essence the story of a woman at the mercy of her malevolent captor, The Collector is like “Beauty and the Beast” but with no possibility of the evildoer being transformed into a handsome prince. Miranda’s attempts to escape from her underground prison have the desperate air of banging on the lid of a coffin nailed shut (an image used to grisly effect in the nasty, grim 1988 Dutch thriller The Vanishing, which owes a great debt to both Fowles’s novel and Wyler’s film).
The play burrows deeply into the mind of Ferdinand, who plans and carries out the kidnapping with the same clinical precision he uses to capture butterflies (a parallel that does not grow more insightful with repetition). Meanwhile Miranda tries everything from logic to violence to deception in her efforts to escape. But there’s much more attention paid to Ferdinand, who incessantly dissects and explains every detail of his behavior; by comparison the glimpses we get of the smarter and more complex Miranda are much too brief. For all his introspection and pontification, Ferdinand doesn’t change much from the sicko we meet in the play’s first five minutes, when he overpowers Miranda and drags her to his dungeon in the country, two hours from London. And Ferdinand’s view of women, though perfectly plausible for his character, is oppressively routine: he divides them all into Madonnas or whores, offers hackneyed declarations of love (“The very first time I saw her, I knew she was the one”), and projects his own self-hatred on women in misogynistic rants (“She was like all women–she had a one-track mind”). His constant pronouncements create an air of claustrophobia so effective that it’s as if one were–well, locked in a cell with a psychopath holding the key.
And structurally the play suffers at times from repetitions that mute its suspense: during one stretch, for example, every scene seems to end with Ferdinand exiting huffily and slamming a door. But on the whole McCartney–who also plays Miranda–has done an exceptional job of creating a lean, literate, and theatrical adaptation, putting the story’s shocking aspects to good use. And she makes her character wholly smart and sympathetic, compelling the audience to root even harder for her. McCartney is well countered by James Lecain Daniels, who credibly conveys Ferdinand’s creepy, sweaty awkwardness. But Fowles has written more complex and better-differentiated work than this, his first novel. And in this adaptation, familiarity with the predictably lonely, desperate lead character breeds little more than contempt.
At least the protagonist in Weller’s Spoils of War is a rather more complicated if finally less believable character. Apparently inspired by Hamlet and Weller’s own adolescent struggles in the late 50s and early 60s, Martin has been sent away to prep school by his overbearing mother, Elise; he takes with him an overly idealistic image of his father, Andrew, who left the two of them to become a war photographer and never returned to the fold. Martin longs to see his parents go back to their leftist ideals and the halcyon days when they were hopelessly in love. But much has changed since they danced to big band music and did the hanky-panky at socialist communes. Elise has become a dipsomaniacal floozy whose financial commitment to her son’s education often means she can’t pay her phone or electric bills. And Andrew–who’s taken up with a young zookeeper, Penny–has long since abandoned his leftist views.
It will take more than a little Disney-style magic for Martin to set his own personal parent trap. What begins as typical adolescent manipulation turns into something far more distressing as Martin’s attempt to re-create his former happy family deteriorates into a desperate, almost sinister campaign. He repeatedly lies to both Andrew and Elise and attempts to seduce Penny, then makes a pass at her in front of Andrew. Once it becomes obvious that the gap between his warring parents may be impossible to bridge, he berates his father–telling him, “Go fuck yourself!”–and chastises his mother, calling her “sloppy, careless, and drunk” before jumping her and almost consummating the oedipal impulses that have been simmering beneath the play’s surface. This lonely child is thus transformed into something of a monster.
Setting his drama at the height of cold war paranoia, Weller has self-consciously drawn overt parallels between Andrew and Elise’s strained relationship and U.S. and Russian hostilities. During a school assembly, Martin gives a speech about the cold war: “Perhaps we have more in common than you know,” he opines. When Andrew discusses his past as a rebel, he laments what could have been done “if we all just held together.” And when Andrew and Elise are finally and tragically brought together, one of them suggests that their “war of silence” has “outlived any usefulness.”
Despite this heavy-handedness, Weller’s drama is compelling enough as it leads to Andrew and Elise’s climactic reunion. In Pyewacket’s production, directed by Linda LeVeque, teenager Christopher Grobe as Martin is a convincing blend of earnest adolescent and pathological liar. The most engaging performances, however, belong to two supporting characters, perhaps indicating the plot’s weakness. Aasne Vigesaa as Andrew’s zookeeper girlfriend adds sharpness, wit, and much-needed levity to this grim family drama, and J. Scott Turner as a scheming war veteran and contractor has a gruff, unpredictable charm and intensity that suggest a young Nick Nolte. As Elise and Andrew, Kate Harris and Jack McCabe may not completely transmit the characters’ supposed intellectual vigor, but they do convey the deep love and hatred they still feel for each other.
When the messy reunion finally occurs, however, realistic drama gives way to soap opera, as if Weller had suddenly stopped writing about what actually happened and started hypothesizing about what might have happened if each character had had about 30 years to prepare pithy remarks. Cathartic outbursts, bitterly delivered insults, and desperate appeals for love give the previously plausible proceedings a phony air. And ultimately Martin’s transformation from decent kid to conniving liar to oedipal nightmare proves unpersuasive: Hamlet loses his restraint over the course of the play, while Martin falls apart in one drunken hour. His misery is painfully realistic, but the idea that a soft-spoken teen would suddenly pounce on his father’s girlfriend and his mother and hurl invective at both parents is less than credible.
Give Martin a couple of years, though, and he might start collecting butterflies.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charissa Armon.