Heartland Studio Theater
One-Act Play Festival
Theo Ubique Theatre Company
at the Heartland Studio Theater
By Kelly Kleiman
The Heartland Studio Theater’s festival suggests a number of interesting things about the one-act play: that, like the short story, it most often succeeds when it builds to a single moment and fails when it tries to accommodate the passage of time; that experienced writers recognize the power of silence while novices tend to say everything several times; that today’s playwrights are generally sweeter and more hopeful than their (often more accomplished) forebears.
Unfortunately, however, none of the above is what struck me about the festival’s two programs, one featuring established writers and the other lesser knowns. What I absolutely have to tell you is that the performance of Terrence McNally’s Sweet Eros, the finale of the old hands’ program, consists of–does not involve, does not include, but actually consists of–an extended, graphic depiction of rape. In this staging the actress sits tied to a chair facing the audience for some 20 minutes while her captor strips her naked and abuses her sexually between his seriocomic monologues. Whatever the merits of the play, the only response this choice evoked for me was “Is it over yet?”–a response apparently shared by the people who walked out midway.
Fred Anzevino’s director’s note describes the play as “odd and disturbing” and adds that “some will see it as misogynistic or gynephobic, unnecessarily demeaning to women and falsely titillating,” perhaps referring to Reader critic Kerry Reid’s recent feminist critique of McNally’s Corpus Christi. But it’s not Sweet Eros that’s misogynist–it’s Anzevino’s production. McNally has written a madman’s rant, a superb portrait of a woman hater; Anzevino has chosen to enact not just the portrait but the hatred, and no amount of explanatory text can make that anything other than participation in the behavior the play purports to critique.
Of course portraying rape is not a violation in and of itself. But relishing its display is, and what else can explain the director’s choice to make Girl (Beata Swiderska) face the audience? She hardly needs to be onstage at all: she has all of three lines, and it would be perfectly clear what was going on if the Young Man (Matt Yde, ably vying for the crazy-dangerous mantle of John Malkovich) raved to the air or to her shadow. At the very least she could face upstage, as McNally himself indicates in stage directions, which would give the audience her perspective and evoke their empathy without exploiting her. And if her face must be visible, she could be seated in profile; we don’t really need to spend the performance noticing, or trying not to notice, that shrieking and sobbing make her breasts bounce. As soon as we do notice, the play loses its capacity to communicate anything to its audience except horror, and we already know that rape is horrible. It’s not any more understandable because an actress has been humiliated. It’s just replicated in a socially acceptable way, as “theater.”
Finally, if the piece absolutely needs to be done in this manner, there shouldn’t be a director’s note about gynephobia; there should be signs in the lobby and program that say “This play contains graphic depictions of sexual violence.” We respect audience members’ sensitivities to gunshots and strobes and cigarette smoke, for Christ’s sake; it shouldn’t be too much to respect their sensitivities regarding rape.
And whether producers and directors genuinely feel that respect or not, they should notice how costly a choice it is to humiliate a woman onstage. In this case, five other plays of varying quality but not without interest have been almost completely eclipsed.
There, that’s out of the way. Now:
The one-act play resembles the short story in more than just its brevity. Both forms work best when they revolve around a single moment: “The Gift of the Magi” is about the instant when the young couple discover their sacrifices are in vain; The Zoo Story is about the stabbing. Both programs in this festival of one-acts–produced to celebrate the Heartland Cafe’s 25 years as a center for progressive politics and the arts–demonstrate the consequences of ignoring this rule.
The first two plays on the newcomers’ program both build to a single transformative moment–an epiphany. Keith Huff’s Leon and Joey–the tale of two brothers, the woman they bring into their life, and their time-traveling genie friend–is touching because the brothers actually get where we hope they’re going but in a surprising way. And Huff is so clear on his pivotal moment that he repeats it, with very slight variations, until the characters get it right. Though he reveals some early-career weaknesses–unnecessary ellipticality and signposting dialogue–his sweet and comic imagination and clarity of purpose save him, and director Adrian Casas makes Huff’s point with the right light touch.
Allan Knee’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, also nicely directed by Casas, is less successful because Knee is too busy writing clever dialogue for his two characters–ex-lovers at their annual rendezvous–to stay focused on the critical moment when the lovers’ cross-purposes become apparent. But hidden in the brittle dialogue (and under Laura Sumpter’s mannered performance) is a genuine heartfelt instant. Though the playwright quickly backs off from it, if he finds the courage of his convictions there’s a decent one-act to be hewn from this block.
By contrast Nancy Wright’s Mimi’s Famous Company, directed by Kevin Hanna, is structured like a full-length play or novel, observing the progress of its title character through time and space. Unfortunately this “All About Eve meets The Bad Seed” play features only stock characters–the grasping mother, the ineffectual male schoolteacher, the trophy wife–whose sole dramatic purpose is to encounter Mimi, who embodies if anyone ever did the description “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Even if the plot were more complicated, the characters are too thin to sustain a full-length play. As a one-act, with no epiphany for anyone, it just feels off.
The established writers’ program begins with Brainerd Duffield’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” an elegant short story focused not on a character’s epiphany but on the reader’s sudden realization of the lottery’s purpose. Unfortunately Duffield’s adaptation, directed by Anzevino, bloats up around that moment, beginning with a hoedown and drawing out the lottery until its conclusion is almost a relief. On the page that conclusion has a wonderfully creepy southern-gothic normality, but here it deteriorates into simple melodrama.
The highlight of the evening is Beverle Bloch’s staging of August Strindberg’s The Stronger, a marvelous but difficult piece: Mrs. X speaks while Miss Y communicates only with her face and body. Mary McCloskey was simultaneously overbearing and terrified as Mrs. X, and Niki Lundgren maintained the perfect ambiguity between triumph and misery. (It should be interesting to see these two terrific actresses switch roles, as they will on Sundays.) The play itself is the perfect portrait of an epiphany–a single encounter unravels everything Mrs. X has believed and stymies everything she’s planned. Leave before Sweet Eros begins and you’ll have a worthwhile evening.