Half Life

Half Life Productions and Awaken! Performances Theatre Company

at American Theater Company

Cave With Man: A Play on Words

House Theatre of Chicago

at the Viaduct Theater

Summer can be a time for risk taking in the theater: itinerant companies snap up spaces at off-peak prices and stick their necks out a bit, catering to adventurous–or at least niche–audiences. The newly assembled Half Life Productions and the almost new Awaken! Productions Theatre Company have teamed up on Half Life, a play that wrangles with the thorny issues of gays in the military and the government’s neglect of gulf war syndrome. And in Cave With Man the three-year-old House Theatre fantasizes about the birth of human language and society. Neither show lacks ambition, but both end up as insubstantial as beach novels.

Half Life has a patina of journalistic realism. Bev Spangler’s script is based on Catherine Crouch’s (unproduced) screenplay, which in turn is based on a novel by Tracy Baim, editor of Windy City Times. And as Baim tells us in three extensive program notes, her novel was based on her own reporting. (“I wrote the book as a news story, with lots of quotes,” she says.) Spangler also consulted service members. Maybe the play ends up thin onstage because it’s passed through so many filters.

Spangler attempts to interweave several stories, most of them laden with glaring improbabilities. It’s 1991, and Roberta has just returned from Kuwait. She thinks she’s going to a ceremony to receive a Bronze Star, but instead army brass surprise her with a dishonorable discharge because it’s been discovered she’s gay. Left without veterans’ benefits, she can’t afford treatment for the strange chemical burns afflicting her since she was caught in a mysterious gas attack. The seven other, mostly gay members of her squad (unfortunately called “F Troop”) have similar burns, so their former commander inexplicably decides to assemble them all in Chicago. Wearing identical bandages, they meet at an “AIDS clinic” and a doctor informs them they’re going to live there indefinitely–she’s got cots in the back–until she can figure out what’s wrong with them. None of the vets voices any concern about this plan–apparently they have no families, jobs, pets, or plants. And the doctor, working in the days when AIDS was raging out of control, seemingly has nothing to do but provide them with free, unauthorized health care for weeks on end.

Was the gas “friendly fire”? Were the soldiers guinea pigs? Are their rashes contagious? Crack Windy City Times reporter Kate tries to discover the truth. Her only resources are unfettered access to the vets and their doctor and the potentially self-incriminating leads offered to her by a deeply closeted military spokeswoman named Jen: no wonder Kate is stymied! She confesses to her editor that she “doesn’t even know where to begin” to investigate the story.

It’s hard to imagine how any of this could be based on journalistic investigation when even as fiction it strains credulity. The production runs two and a half hours, but the only character depicted in detail is Jen, thanks in part to a subtle performance by Spangler (although for much of the evening she’s nearly inaudible, as are several other members of the uneven cast). Director Jenna Newman’s rudimentary staging doesn’t do the script many favors. Most disappointing, the show’s potentially intriguing political questions are reduced to black-and-white issues–the audience need never guess where their sympathies should lie.

Playwright Stephen Taylor has no more aptitude for plausibility than Spangler. In Cave With Man he imagines the prehistoric moment when humans first invented language–although they already have cargo shorts, conga drums, and most inexplicably, party clothes for Saint Patrick’s Day. The first word uttered is “nanana,” which comes out of the mouth of a blind caveman after he’s eaten a banana (later he’s ritualistically blindfolded–making him double-blind, I suppose). Everyone in his little circle starts using the word, and soon he’s naming his children, his wife, himself, people in the audience, and a strange guy in a green dress who sometimes hangs from a rope. Eventually the next generation of cave people, armed with language, start fighting among themselves, until finally the blind patriarch and a lady with horns end up in a battle to decide…something or other.

In a program note Taylor likens his work to linguistic anthropology. But as a friend pointed out after the show, the theory of language acquisition in Cave With Man doesn’t go much beyond Dr. Frankenstein coaxing syllables from his creature in the Boris Karloff film. And if Taylor’s “play on words” is so concerned with the role of language in human evolution, why is that idea dropped three-quarters of the way through, when one warrior suddenly breaks into semi-Elizabethan English while another is instantly fluent in modern French?

Clearly the company isn’t entirely serious. Often they seem to be lampooning their own quasianthropological endeavor. There are many ironic anachronisms, and at one point a wannabe tribal warrior breaks into a Vegas-style song and dance. But with no clear historical or mythological reference–only a meager thread of narrative and hopelessly jumbled symbolism–it’s hard to tell what they’re really up to or how seriously it should be taken. The uses the early humans find for language–naming things, exerting control over nature and each other–are obvious and repetitive. And the large cast and boisterous performances allow only the most superficial relationships to develop between characters. The result is two hours of horsing around: why would talented, intelligent people think that’s enough?

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