Here’s a project for some enterprising theater scholar: find out why American playwrights are so damn nice. The dominant mode among them right now, of course, is poetic whimsy as exemplified by the work of Sarah Ruhl (though she may be growing out of it). But even our acknowledged greats have been inexcusably tenderhearted.
Sure, Tennessee Williams let Blanche DuBois get horribly abused in A Streetcar Named Desire, but he didn’t deny her a sad, slow, sympathetic exit. Our preeminent so-called absurdist, Edward Albee, didn’t allow George and Martha to tear each other apart and eat the pieces at the end of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
My own theory is that American playwrights are as infected as anybody by American optimism. They can’t summon up the rage required to tear the nation a new one because they keep thinking salvation is just a vote and a really cool tech concept away. Whenever they try to get cruel, they come across sounding wistful instead.
It’ll be interesting to see if that changes as the current economic malaise hardens into a new feudalism, with formerly middle-class peasants—the lucky ones, anyway—working some oligarch’s virtual estates 24/7. Maybe our playwrights will learn something from the Occupy movement, whose members seem to have figured out where things are heading.
Until then, we’ll have to rely on Europeans. Shtupped with more tyranny, more history, more Clausewitz and Marx than us, they clearly understand despair better than we do. And that can make them bracingly ugly.
Take Werner Schwab, for instance. Born into post-war, Cold War Austria, he grew up drab and apparently drank himself to death. But before he went, on New Year’s Day, 1994, he turned out a quick 16 plays. His Overweight, Unimportant: Misshape—A European Supper (Übergewicht, unwichtig: Unform. Ein europäisches Abendmahl) is getting its North American premiere now in a jaw-dropping production at the Trap Door Theatre, directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Yasen Peyankov. This has got to be one of the most unabashedly vicious things I’ve ever seen on a stage. I loved it.
Not that I always understood it. As the agrammatical title suggests, Schwab didn’t let rules of usage and rhetoric inhibit his output. Some speeches seem to double back and wind around themselves in Michael Mitchell’s gallant, quixotic English translation, playing with absurdity if not nonsense. Still, Schwab is clear enough—and also funny enough—when he wants to be, and the play’s premise is downright simple: a pair of sleek, rich, good-looking young lovers go slumming at a crummy neighborhood bierstube.
As the beautiful people drink the owner’s special-occasion champagne and gaze into each other’s eyes, we get to know the regulars. There’s the amiable pedophile, Piggy, and his Madame LaFarge-like wife, Bunny. A sociopath named Karlo and his glutton-for-punishment girlfriend Herta. Pussy, so named because she’ll show it to you for jukebox money. And the pathetic resident philosopher, Jürgen. Obviously, Schwab didn’t stand on class allegiance.
As they talk among themselves, Das Volk grow increasingly restive over the sophisticates in their midst. Before the play’s over, they’ll discover and show us what William Burroughs called “the naked lunch—a frozen moment when everyone sees what is at the end of every fork.”
When Kerry Reid interviewed him for the Reader‘s 2011 Fall Arts Guide, director Max Truax told her, “I’m drawn to what I often refer to as ‘broken’ plays. I feel like there are great works out there that need to be told visually.” Henrik Ibsen’s Brand isn’t broken, really. It’s meant to be what it is, but what it is is massive, difficult, and troubling. Published more than a decade before the playwright started writing realist masterworks like A Doll’s House, Brand is a symbolic drama in which the grim, God-obsessed title character, a sort of Ahab of divinity, learns the exact cost and value of his absolutism. The original production ran for over six hours.
Truax has pared away about two-thirds of that running time, and, true to his plan, given Brand a compellingly visual telling for Red Tape Theatre.
The audience sits in two locations over the course of the piece, surrounded by Michael Mroch’s abstract, suggestive set and the hazy glow of Karen Thompson’s lights. The ensemble is often squirmingly close, directing their speech at us but only strategically acknowledging our presence. Cody Proctor has the right gaunt look as Brand, although he seems to equate conviction with fast talking. I wasn’t all that interested in him, anyway, but in the people who had to endure his piety—especially Agnes, his long-long-suffering wife, played with a kind of imbued, hippie-girl intensity by Amanda Drinkall. Still, when the script’s ambiguous final line was whispered into Brand’s ear, I had a giddy feeling, as if I’d looked over into something whose bottom was very far away.