Prop Thtr


JCL Productions

at Center Theater

There’s an improv game called Chinese Boxes that neatly apes a favorite formula of science-fiction thrillers. You begin with one person doing nothing special, maybe reading a letter out loud. A second person enters and orders a retake; we realize a film is in progress. A third actor walks in–and turns out to be a shrink (the other two were only mental patients pretending they were making a film). A fourth–etc, etc.

Good sci-fi also keeps you guessing by breaking a story’s frame and shifting the tale’s mental and physical foundation until you no longer recognize, as the standby dismissal puts it, “reality as we know it.”

Before his death in 1982, the Chicago-born writer Philip K. Dick had written 50 sci-fi novels. Easily the most famous was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner. Dick’s specialty was to balance the real, outer enemies of his reluctant heroes (usually a repressive techno-police state out to vaporize them) with a Pandora’s box of self-destructive inner demons; these perversely make the outer enemies’ dirty work that much easier.

Adapted by Mabou Mines member Linda Hartinian from Dick’s 1974 novel, a Joseph Campbell Award winner, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said compresses several intriguing Chinese boxes into a story of a man who, as one character puts it, is trying “to become a more involved life form.”

Flow is set in that favorite sci-fi dystopia, a future fascist state: Amerika is carved into police zones (each with forced-labor camps), rebellious students are restricted to a “subsurface” existence, a superefficient 900-number phone grid translates sexual suggestions into instant satisfaction, the age of consent for gay and straight sex has fallen from 13 to 8 (!), and television is truly the Great Tranquilizer.

Our 42-year-old hero, Jason Taverner, is in fact a self-described “well-known TV celebrity”–and, off-camera, a smarmy racist lowbrow. Jason wakes up one day to find he has lost all his essential IDs. His TV cohost Heather Hart recognizes him only as another “twerp fan.” In fact, every trace of Jason’s existence has been erased from the zone’s exhaustive files. Jason goes from fame to zilch faster than Erik Estrada.

In search of clues as to why he’s a nonperson to everyone but himself, Jason meets a neurotic forger and part-time government informant (who propositions him), an over-the-hill lounge lady (who propositions him), and a bald, sadistic police general (who tortures him). His identity changing like a mutant gene, Jason stumbles across a dangerous scandal–the general has fathered a child with his own sister (who propositions Jason)–and his real troubles begin.

The Chinese boxes really kick in with the final switcheroo. It’s enough to say it’s a variation on a favorite theme: mind manufactures matter (the furthest application of art imitating nature). Here it takes the form of group hallucinations prompted by a drug named KR3 and also has something to do with solipsistic “space corridors,” like parallel universes that suddenly intersect–but only at a high price: the person who manages to access them rapidly ages to death. The brain, it seems, can’t hog too many alternative worlds without short-circuiting.

Hartinian’s adaptation suffers from both too much detail and enough holes to create several parallel universes of its own. It also succumbs to sci-fi’s maddening habit of alluding to characters who never show up, contemporary events that make no sense without a program, and assorted untranslatable future argot. (All the stuff that doomed the film Dune.)

Lumbered with some energy gaps, Dan Sutherland’s 140-minute staging unravels at a leisurely pace that doesn’t always fit Jason’s Dantesque discoveries. But despite a shoestring budget Prop Thtr’s midwest premiere boasts a paranoid urgency all its own. (Sutherland’s most inspired touch is to surround Jason’s identity search with soporific hit songs from the 50s.) And enough of the novel survives to fill in the low-budget blanks.

At first nasty, then humble, Darryl Warren’s Jason evolves into an unpredictably protean creature (who in effect has to make himself up as he goes along); Warren makes the journey fascinating. Peter Reinemann proves suitably sinister as the incestuous general, and Ariel Brenner plays his punk-leatherette sister with python passion. The other ten Props explore their space corridors as if they were real–just the way Chinese Boxes was meant to be played

Moving from future shock to a play that dredges up an ugly past, Arthur Miller’s early success remains a well-crafted domestic melodrama, its highly moral purpose to destroy a family in order to expose a lie. The capitalist father in All My Sons, Joe Keller, has committed the always contemporary sin of believing the end (providing his family with wealth and security) justifies the means (selling defective airplane parts). Miller’s play preaches a different ethic, a responsibility to all my sons. Or what, wonders Joe’s idealistic son, was the point of fighting Hitler anyway?

For this JCL Productions presentation of a Grove Players staging, designer/director Jeffrey Harris creates an evocative, nicely detailed backyard set that lighting designer Doug Oeste warmly and symbolically moves from bright to dark.

But Harris clearly spent less time on the acting. Like the script, it’s weakest in the first act, where awkward blocking, whipped-dog posturings, rushed and flat declamation, and bland recitation fail to keep the plot boiling. The enervation shows up worst in George Scanlan’s Joe Keller; Scanlan doesn’t suggest enough menacing solidity to spark the right resistance from Joe’s disillusioned son. As that son, Gregg H. Palmer offers a strong, unforced portrait of a small-town Hamlet suddenly waking up to discover there are moral cancers that can devour an entire family and leave them looking just the same as before. (Interestingly, Miller was attacking the American family’s unquestioning, zombielike togetherness just as the 50s were trying to enshrine it.)

The mother, Kate Keller, refuses to let go–of her dead son Larry and of her security as the wife of tycoon Joe Keller. By the end, thanks to Miller’s relentless coups de theatre, she’s let go of everything but a shredded life. Marge Uhlarik suggests much of Kate’s panic, but like Scanlan she relies too much on sudden amplification and not enough on scene building.

A volatile contrast to the complacent Kellers, Gary Charles Metz gives a risky, on-the-edge portrayal as the enraged son of the man Joe allowed to take the rap; it cools down too soon, then has trouble flaring up again, but when it erupted it was terrific. Like much here, a performance to be enjoyed in fits and starts but not as a whole.