Stage Left Theatre

The scope of Stage Left’s Double Every Minute, a marathon double bill of four unabashedly political one-act plays, is broad, even exhaustive. The plays examine the zealous idealism of young revolutionaries, the pathetic self-centeredness of young liberals, the seemingly unattainable goal of self-determination in contemporary Poland, and the dehumanizing effects of institutionalized racism in South Africa. Stage Left is pulling no punches with this show, and it’s a workout simply to make it through the evening.

Howard Brenton’s The Saliva Milkshake is the first play on the first bill. It presents in short, sketchy scenes an episode from the life of Martin (Brian Shaw), a former revolutionary now teaching college-level science in Britain. He is confronted by Joan (Marguerite Hammersley), a nearly forgotten fellow radical from his past who breaks into his flat to inform him that she has just murdered a member of the British cabinet. Martin’s dilemma is whether to assist Joan in her attempt to flee the country or to turn her in, a decision on which he continually flip-flops depending upon where he sees his own self-interest or libidinal imperative to lie.

The world that Brenton paints is intriguing and seductive, mainly because all the characters surrounding Martin jealously guard their true feelings and loyalties. In a particularly chilling moment, Raffety (Debra Rodkin), a charming British woman who also works for Joan’s terrorist group, calmly explains her order to murder Joan by saying, “She was Maoist. She had situationist tendencies.” This is a world where prescribing to the wrong branch of revolutionary thought can be fatal.

The story of The Saliva Milkshake is compelling, but Brenton unfortunatly writes more illustratively than dramatically. With the exception of Martin, the characters make few decisions and face few obstacles, so that they seem manipulated by the playwright rather than allowed to react to the situations in which they find themselves. The acting makes these characters seem complex and human, but the script has no surprises, no challenges, that would allow that complexity to develop. The characters come off as limited, and their choices are predictable, dictated by political orientation. The notable exception comes when Joan is haranguing Martin with the ideals of revolutionary socialism and all he can do is stare at her deliciously wet lower lip. This moment evinces contradictory and ambivalent pulls in Martin, creating a recognizable humanity on an emotional level that’s lacking in much of the rest of the play.

Second on the first bill is Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, an hour-long quasi-poetic drama examining the cruelty inflicted upon an interracial couple in South Africa. Frieda (Adrianne Krstansky) and Errol (David Barr) meet nightly after hours in the library where Frieda works, where they’re watched not only by Detective-Sergeant J. DuPreez (Larry Wiley) but also by a nosy neighbor. In fact their simple act of love–complicated somewhat by the fact that Errol is married–becomes the focus of intense but unacknowledged voyeurism: the police stake out the library for weeks, taking pictures of the couple together to use as “evidence.”

This is highly charged material, and Krstansky and Barr create as compelling a couple as the script allows. When these two lie naked together on the library floor, they clearly believe that their lives are at stake, which adds a good deal of tension to the play. But Fugard’s text ultimately seems too poetic for its own good. After a long, realistic opening scene with the couple lying naked and discussing the painful impossibility of their relationship, the play begins shifting to different levels of reality, and it’s difficult to maintain a sense of dramatic consistency. For example, just after Frieda is discovered by the police, she begins recounting in detail the story of how she met Errol–all the while pinned naked against the wall in a white spotlight. Is this story spontaneously spilling out under the shock of being discovered? Or is it one of many momentary poetic digressions? While Krstansky’s performance of this monologue is deeply felt, I simply could not find a way to fit it into the rest of the play.

Howard Barker’s Fair Slaughter, the first play on the second bill, suffers from stylistic inconsistency in much the same way. It is the story of Old Gocher (Larry Wiley), a radical Communist convicted of murder and now dying in a prison hospital. Gocher keeps with him at all times a severed hand in a glass jar, a hand that in his youth he cut from a fellow Bolshevik. Gocher, perhaps demented, now wants to return to this Bolshevik’s unmarked grave to reunite the hand with the rest of the corpse.

On one level, this play seems a grotesque farce, in which rather one-dimensional characters suddenly act in entirely unexpected ways. For example, when Gocher’s daughter Moira (Hammersley) comes to visit her hated father in prison, he tries to convince her to secure his release by selling herself to each of the guards in turn. This ultimate capitalist gesture should be disturbingly funny coming from such a devout Communist, yet nothing in the script heightens the comic reality.

Similarly, long flashbacks show Young Gocher (Mark Hisler) in his post-Bolshevik days struggling to maintin his integrity while impresario Staveley (played with slimy expertise by Don Tieri) markets him as a banjo-playing bum, selling his misery to an adoring crowd. This scene is perhaps intended to be bitterly comic, yet Barker’s tone is so somber that no humor shines through. As one of the characters says, “This would be comical if it weren’t so nasty.”

The final piece, Phil Bosakowski’s Chopin in Space, is an attempt at broad, slapstick political humor: Frederic Chopin (the delightful David Engel), on a trek through the centuries to find his lost piano, discovers himself reincarnated as Lech Walesa. Frederic/Lech is constantly thwarted by such folks as Hitler, the Pope, Ronald Reagan, and a guy in a bear suit (Russia). I found the play so cluttered and overwrought that any political commentary was either pat or impenetrable.

Throughout the evening the 11-person ensemble of actors displays a remarkable commitment, bringing to each of these highly problematic plays intelligence, energy, and integrity–they tear through these works, making up in passion for what they sometimes lack in subtlety. Bold, indelible images pop out of each production. Yet these talented people, including the design team and four directors, seem stretched up to and perhaps just beyond their limits. This material is very difficult–what could be harder than making political drama engagingly human?–and these artists seem to be still finding their feet, still working through these problematic texts. Though it can be an exciting process to watch, the result can also seem cluttered.

A flyer for this show includes the quote: “By the year 2009 the amount of available information in the world will double every minute.” These plays explore the near-impossibility of ethical choice in the face of information overload–an important idea to address theatrically, but in some ways this production is guilty of the same sin. It gave me so much to respond to that I could process little of it, and I was left wanting more concrete images to contemplate. Still, I admire Stage Left for attempting this vast, enormously challenging if not wholly successful project. At least it reminds us that theater can and arguably should engage us with our moment in history.