at Chicago Actors Project


Commons Theatre

If the playwright’s worst fear is an indifferent audience, Howard Brenton needn’t worry. In his first play, Revenge, the English dramatist savaged the London police with the sensational overkill that has since colored all his outbursts. In Pravda he anatomized–with an ax–publisher Rupert Murdoch’s lust for power. In Bloody Poetry Brenton portrayed Shelley and Byron as selfish prigs who neglected their loved ones to pursue their art.

Brenton’s plays seethe with antiestablishment agendas–he’s obsessed with public and private violence and condemns law-and-order restraints as threats to individual liberty. But none approaches the ugly pathology that screams through Sore Throats. This play exists mainly to shock. It engages in no dialogue with its audience; it wants to trigger explosions, not discussions. Sore Throats is as ugly as sin, and the sin here is domestic violence.

Judy is a divorced 39-year-old who lost her home when she lost her husband and now lives without hope or power in a bare south London flat. As the play opens, Jack, the policeman husband who regularly assaulted her for over 20 years, has just shown up–or as Judy puts it, “returned to the scene of the crime.” Judy attacks him for his adultery with a certain Celia. She moans that the years with him “bleached her out,” made her hate sex, and wasted her future, so that now she lacks any life of her own.

Seeing her misery, Jack offers the classic blame-the-victim cop-out: “You can’t live in pain all the time.” Because he wants to force Judy to sign over a settlement he had promised her, he begins to slap and kick her with almost ritualized violence, declaring “Torture makes the world go round.” When she disobeys an order and tries to crawl away, he kicks her again and again until she gives him the money.

When Jack returns a few moments later to retrieve a favorite pocketknife (he calls it his “little friend”), Judy isn’t alone. Sally, a scrappy dame with punk hair, has just arrived to look for lodgings. No human punching bag, Sally is used to dealing with human squalor (“You open any door and you find you’re in an abattoir”), so when Jack menaces her, Sally knocks him flat with her purse. Then she decides to move in with Judy.

A year later the women are still living together in disheveled domesticity. Jack has run off to Canada with Celia, and Judy sleeps with teenage boys and not so secretly longs for Sally. “You’re so beautiful I want to hurt you,” she says, Jack’s legacy of violence apparently still unspent. For them, they say, “love and money are running out”: Judy refuses to touch the funds from the sale of her old house, and to amuse themselves, the women rhapsodize over the prospect of becoming call girls and revenging themselves on men.

Of course Jack must return so that Judy can be broken of her addiction to pain. It seems he didn’t become a Mountie. Instead he crashed a car, which threw Celia into premature labor. When he describes the child’s birth, it’s with a disgust that teems with this bully’s fear of a woman’s power to create life. Celia dumps him for a lumberjack, so Jack has now slimed back to Judy, purportedly bringing Celia’s baby with him, thinking he can touch Judy’s pity and get her money. But Judy rips and burns up the remaining cash, an act meant to signal her redemption, the break in the cycle. Meanwhile Jack furtively pockets several wads of pound notes.

Dramatic and symbolic this ending may be, yet it seems predetermined and ultimately no more satisfying than the recent conviction of Joel Steinberg on manslaughter charges. (In fact, Judy’s agony eerily resembles Hedda Nussbaum’s love-hate relationship with the Steinberg creature.) A rant that works a little too well, Sore Throats conjures up demons it can’t possibly exorcise; it’s so packed with unprocessed anger it can’t see straight. The playwright, eager to make his points, has the battered Judy suddenly read a description of an Islamic punishment by amputation–just for the implicit comparison of cross-cultural cruelty. Then she runs off to retch–as if otherwise we’d never know how horrible it was. The stage violence is so brutal that even the scatological, bottom-of-the-garbage-can dialogue can’t match it (Brenton’s language fairly festers with descriptions of physical defects, like boils in bad buns).

Played close to the bitter bone, Malissa White’s staging is relentlessly faithful to Brenton’s pathology–this Kamijo production is as rank as spoiled sushi. Livid with misogynistic fervor, Daniel Charnas’s sadistic Jack might have crawled out from under any rock on Rush Street. Kate Harris’s Judy, surprisingly spunky for a woman who’s supposed to have been slapped silly for two decades, screams and cackles with the bruised bravura of a veteran victim. As her accidental savior, Ilya Parenteau never has the chance to establish what kind of alternative Sally might be–that would have required some subtlety and moderation in the play, qualities Brenton doesn’t seem to believe his hopeless story and characters deserve. He’s too intent on slapping the audience with indictments to offer anything as mundane as a way out.

Through the end of the month, ten new works by local writers can be sampled in the Commons Theatre/Chicago New Plays productions. Among them is a varied evening of three one-acts, two by Nicholas Patricca and one by Anne McGravie, that closes this weekend.

The opener is Steve Scott’s warm staging of Hail Mary II, a Patricca monologue in which Lucina Paquet plays a serenely religious woman conversing with an unseen hearer. Among other strange conceits, she believes that she possesses special spiritual glasses. She’s convinced that each day’s experiences come direct from a box where God keeps them. She says she needs to see no miracle shrine to know the Virgin Mary is always mourning, (“I know Mary cries”), and ends by insisting she’ll stick around because Mary “wants us to learn to love.” Paquet plays this radiant worshipper with a jovial, unforced fervor that’s endearing and very right.

McGravie’s Bags, directed by Ellyn Duncan, is a bittersweet, slyly ironic slice of life from Northern Ireland. India Cooper and Corinne Lyon play a Protestant and a Catholic lady enjoying an afternoon coffee and tea together in a local cafe. Employing wryly chosen–and deliberately ordinary–details, McGravie sets up an artificial intimacy between them; they complain about always having to live in a state of siege, being searched in stores for bombs hidden in bags, etc. But when one woman has apparently left unexpectedly, the other leaps to a predictably paranoid conclusion. The play ends by wondering, too pointedly, “Is there any hope at all?” Despite Cooper’s shaky accent, the actors do achieve the right brittle bonhommie. Sue Schuler has a nice turn as a stunningly inept waitress.

The most ambitious work is Patricca’s Lemon Tree, a sort of collage of various cultures that centers around an actual 1976 suicide pact between two Sicilian boys: they fell in love after meeting under a lemon tree (which looms in the background) and, according to their suicide letter, decided to die rather than live in a world that would make them hate that love.

Emphasizing the ritual side of their tragedy with candies and a censer, Patricca also wants to convey the simultaneous realities around it: he introduces a director working on a film version of the lover’s death and a woman in black who sits at the side of the stage in perpetual mourning. He also includes a rather precious monologue in which a San Francisco man with AIDS wonders why “I’m dying and I’m beautiful,” a description of Goethe’s intolerance of Sicilian rites, a gloss on the origin of the tarantella, letters to the playwright (one describes an American version of the Italian suicides that’s complicated by AIDS), and old Sicilian lamentations in which the singers create haunting vibrations by singing directly into each other’s throats.

All of which adds up to a lot of material for 40 minutes. Robert Sturm’s sober staging gives the play a fitting dignity, if not the sense of inevitability that might have linked its apparent randomness. Lemon Tree’s form, as crucial as, its content, ends up creating its own arch obstacles. But no question, what’s within is moving and fully felt.