at the Ruth Page Dance Center
Alice Walker claimed that the story of The Color Purple was given to her in a dream. The numerous inconsistencies and anachronisms to be found in it are therefore, one presumes, to be excused because it is a work of vision rather than craft. Perhaps for the same reasons Steve Carter carefully chose “an island of the mind” as the setting for Pecong, publicized widely as the Caribbean Medea.
In the original Jason and Medea scandal, Jason’s wicked uncle Pelias has sent him on a suicide mission to Colchis to steal the sacred Golden Fleece from King Aeetes. He succeeds through the assistance of Medea, the magic-empowered daughter of Aeetes, persuading her with a promise of marriage to betray her father, murder her brother, and then flee with him to his homeland, there to mastermind the assassination of Pelias. After doing all this, of course, Medea learns that Jason intends to dump her and marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth. Outraged, Medea kills not only Glauce and Creon, but her two sons begat of Jason.
It was a sordid enough tale when Euripides told it in 431 BC. It was a long and complicated one as well. Euripides, recognizing the difficulties of containing all this intrigue within the time-and-place conventions of the tragedy form, chose to narrate only the events surrounding Jason’s desertion and Medea’s revenge, emphasizing the romantic aspects of the story. But in making Medea’s only motivation her love for Jason, he eliminated much of the story’s power and impact. Because the protagonists of classic tragedy must of necessity be people of great consequence–tragedy does not concern itself with small disturbances. If the actions of heroic figures are based simply on selfish motives, these characters are stripped of their larger responsibilities to the gods and to society. And their actions–however much they may amuse the curious and prurient–are no longer significant.
This is precisely the problem with Pecong. Carter has chosen to include more of the Medea myth, but to further reduce the universe in which it occurs. Instead of performing arduous and exotic tasks such as harnessing fire-breathing bulls and battling armies sprung from dragons’ teeth in order to acquire his prize, this Jason Allcock has only to win at Pecong–a sort of rap version of “the dozens,” in which two opponents vilify each other in nonstop rhyme until one of them becomes tongue-tied. The sight of Jason, crowned with a ram’s-horn headdress, strumming an instrument resembling a child’s toy guitar and taunting his opponent with crude jokes about the condition of his mother’s reproductive organs, forces us to wonder why on earth Mediyah, sorceress of the highest order and a queen in her own right, even bothers with him. Bother with him she does, however, crawling at his feet and begging him to stay with her, like a streetwalker pleading with her pimp. It’s nice melodrama, but impossible to take seriously–though this is going to end in death, and death is no trivial matter. By diminishing his characters, Carter also diminishes their actions, making what should be a grand cataclysm little more than a lurid tale fit only for the National Enquirer of a jealous mass murderess and the man who done her wrong.
This is not to say that there isn’t much to enjoy in the production. Set designer James Dardenne, lighting designer Robert Shook, costume designer Claudia Boddy, composer Willy Steele, and sound designer Galen Ramsey have created a virtual Midsummer Night’s Jungle, breathtaking in its size and pyrotechnics–this technical team understands tragic dimensions, even if the playwright doesn’t. Director Dennis Zacek and choreographer T.C. Carson have orchestrated Pecong as a great graceful ballet that clearly conveys the story by itself. It’s a good thing. Since this is an “island of the mind,” a dialect coach was apparently thought unnecessary, with the result that the Pidgin English dialogue veers precariously between the Indies, the Ionians, and–incredibly–the Hebrides. Compounding the unintelligibility are the acoustics at the Ruth Page Dance Center, which are just what one would expect in an auditorium designed for dancers.
The cast of Pecong is, I suppose, to be commended for not collapsing under the weight of all this Wagnerian spectacle. Only Pat Bowie manages to rise above it, however, infusing her role of the ancient priestess Granny Root with more power and majesty than Marie Laveau could have. Celeste Williams’s Mediyah never achieves tragic grandeur, but nonetheless carries out her prodigious responsibilities with poise and dignity. As Jason Allcock, Daniel Oreskes doesn’t even try to hold up his end, reciting his most lyrical lines with a plodding bullishness. With his string of credits, I expected more from Ernest Perry Jr., whose Creon Pandit has a disconcerting tendency to sound like Jesse Jackson. Catherine Slade’s solidly crafted performance as Persis anchors Wandachristine’s performance as Faustina, which consists largely of her usual catalog of coloratura tricks. And Diane White never seems to recover from playing the first two-thirds of the play as a mute.
Visually, Pecong is nothing short of brilliant. But I expected more from Victory Gardens. Like maybe something to listen to.
Susan Katz’s Courage Untold is almost the polar opposite of Pecong. Rather than promising much and delivering little, this docudrama of the 1944 prisoners’ uprising at Auschwitz didn’t promise to be anything more than another holocaust play (possibly with a feminist angle), but wound up delivering more than perhaps even the playwright was aware.
The story is constructed along lines similar to the film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Act one consists of preparations for the revolt–the smuggling of gunpowder from the munitions factory to the mortuaries via the workers who sort and wash the clothes of the victims. This information is presented in a dry and straightforward manner, offering us little emotional connection with any one character. But it holds our attention because we know that it’s building toward something. When the payoff comes–and those gas chambers and crematoriums go up in flames–we are as exultant as those who engineered it.
But that’s not the end. The second act concerns itself with the aftermath of the revolt–the Nazi spy who infiltrates the camp, the saboteurs who are betrayed by one of their members and executed. As the closely knit team is unraveled by exposure and capture, we come to recognize the courage and endurance of individuals, particularly that of Roza Robota, who refuses to break under torture and whose final words before dying–“We will survive”–may serve as a rallying cry for all time.
Katz has researched her material carefully, perhaps too carefully. The drama in this play seems splashed onto the documentary sporadically, even gratuitously. The production offers no assistance–the set is rudimentary, and the props and costumes ludicrously inaccurate (plastic spoons in a concentration camp?). The acting is barely first-year studio level. The exception is F. David Roth, the prisoner Noah, who projects an intensely believable anguish. But then there’s Susan Wishnetsky, whose Foreman Schultz belongs in a Mel Brooks movie.
Nonetheless, Courage Untold has a value that goes beyond theatrical fireworks. The night I attended, I noticed a marked reaction from the couple sitting in front of me whenever the name of the character Kaminsky was mentioned. Afterward, I learned that these two people had participated in the very uprising portrayed in Courage Untold, and that this same Kaminsky, who’s killed early in the play, had been a close friend of theirs. The woman was crying. “It’s a bad memory,” she told me, “but it must never be forgotten, for it must never happen again.” One can’t argue with that.