at Preston Bradley Community Center
Rituals, an original theater piece directed by Pamela Meyer, attempts to dramatize the directionless, melancholy, and fundamentally empty existence of the contemporary urban dweller, a plight it intends to remedy by reappropriating ancient rituals. Unfortunately, this production accomplishes the opposite, showing how rituals become meaningless when yanked out of their cultural context and applied as universal palliatives to postmodern angst.
Rituals was developed through improvisation, resulting in a series of short monologues and scenes featuring recognizable types: Frank (Jeff Deckman), the aspiring corporate vice president; Michael (George Badecker), the journalist and frustrated novelist; Carla (Marcia Wilkie), the unfulfilled housewife; Pauline (Sarah Bradley), the blond-bombshell movie-star sex symbol; and Matt (Christopher Shanahan), the renegade homeless youth. In these sparse scenes, the characters profess satisfaction with their chosen life-styles, lifestyles that are for the most part defined by externals.
Yet it becomes clear that each longs for a deeper sense of personal fulfillment, to be found only through internal change and not through material acquisition. Frank would rather tend his garden, where he “doesn’t have to prove anything,” than continue his quest for corporate status. Carla would rather return to her politically active youth than hang on to the security she finds in having five different breakfast cereals stocked in her cupboard. Pauline would give up her stardom to be loved.
For the most part, the acting is strong, especially considering that the actors must continually shift in and out of character and in and out of scenes as well as talk directly to the audience. Badecker’s delivery of Michael’s introductory monologue is disarmingly sincere and vulnerable. Bradley’s Pauline is at once pathetic and frightening, as she clings addictively to her mirror, which she says she needs so that she can “own her imperfections.” And Deckman’s characterization of the singularly good-natured Frank is effortlessly accurate.
With such strong talent, it is a shame that the material here is so thin. The scenes tend to repeat the same message: these people are wandering aimlessly, their lives are artificial. They are searching for things that they will never attain, and that wouldn’t satisfy them even if they could find them. Most problematic is the fact that the characters’ lives are so typical as to make them seem caricatures. With the exception of a few refreshingly clever details–because Carla finds it necessary to make herself cry all the time, she repeatedly watches the end of Old Yeller and the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show–the characters are flat. Everyone just seems to be in a black funk, and the possibility for an accurate or pointed description of a character’s dilemma is glossed over.
The piece goes fully awry during its last 20 minutes, when the five characters inexplicably take part in an unclear ritual. They begin by offering up the objects that have defined them during the show–Frank’s computer keyboard, Michael’s notebook, Carla’s apron, Pauline’s gold lame dress, Matt’s black leather jacket. Then they light a small fire, and proceed to perform a series of klunky, dancelike movements–lighting punks, throwing salt into the fire. This seems to make the Sun Goddess (Jan Collins) appear. Her appearance is disappointing and anticlimactic, however: she watches over the ritual, shines a light on the face of each participant in turn, and then quietly exits.
Not only is this lengthy ritual dramatically unsound–it is next to impossible to read any intention behind the actions–it is thematically counterproductive. The ritual is more artificial than the intentional artificiality dramatized in the preceding scenes. Sacrificial fires and cleansing salts are not a part of these characters’ world. They have no rightful ownership of these things, which have healing powers only when rooted in a larger cultural tradition. For these characters to uproot these traditions and use them like cross-cultural aspirin seems not only empty but arrogant, as if they had a right to pilfer another culture’s sacred gestures and reassemble them as they saw fit.
What might have made this production more sound is a more than cursory glance at contemporary middle-class life. Yes, on the surface American culture does seem crass and shallow, as if we were all wandering brainlessly through a giant, antiseptic shopping mall. But like it or not, commercialism runs deep in our American psyche. To simply disparage this fact and try instead to act more like an ancient Egyptian is an unhealthy act of self-denial.
At only one point does Rituals make an attempt to embrace our cultural predicament rather than run screaming from it. In a truly nightmarish scene, Frank is trying to drive to work, with both his parents and his boss in the car. His parents want to take him on a fishing trip, and his boss wants to see “the Brown account,” which he can’t find in his briefcase. As Frank’s confusion and anger are about to explode, his mother begins to massage his head, softly cooing, “The coffeepot is full . . . the computer is on . . . the elevator is going up.” Here is a true moment of healing: Frank finds, and I found, great warmth and security in his mother’s images.
As this one scene begins to point out, finding the unintentionally sacred in our daily lives allows us to possess a secret beauty and to reclaim the part of ourselves that a materialistic culture would deny us. Were such an insight given greater attention, Rituals might challenge and engage the viewer rather than merely lament his empty existence.