“The fairy tale’s concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner processes taking place in an individual,” wrote child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment. Bettelheim argues that fairy tales are therapeutic because they help the reader contemplate “what the story seems to imply about him and his inner conflicts at this moment in his life.” British dramatist Anthony Neilson flips this formulation on its head in his 2004 play The Wonderful World of Dissocia, currently receiving its U.S. premiere in a beguiling if uneven new production at Profiles Theatre. Neilson asks: What if we choose to remain on the other side of the looking glass? What if we actually prefer our Technicolor fantasies to the bland routine of normal life? He explores this alluring possibility in his darkly comic fable about the havoc fairy tales can wreak upon grown-ups.
On a flight home from New York, thirtysomething Londoner Lisa Jones happens to cross the prime meridian at the precise moment daylight savings time takes effect in Britain. Through a metaphysical rupture in the global time-zone continuum, she loses an hour, and her whole life is thrown off-kilter: so much power resides in those 60 unused minutes, the play tells us, that she must travel to the kingdom of Dissocia to retrieve them. Like Alice and Dorothy before her, Lisa is plunged—in an astonishing scenic coup—headlong into a trippy alternate reality that conforms only to the logic of her own dreams.
The kingdom bears a close resemblance to the Lands Beyond in Norton Juster’s linguistically playful The Phantom Tollbooth. (Lisa encounters two bumbling “insecurity guards” and a randy “scapegoat,” among others.) It becomes quickly apparent that all is not well in Dissocia: abandoned by their benevolent queen, its unhappy citizens are trapped in the clutches of the evil Black Dog King. But Neilson has even darker things in store for Lisa as she searches for her lost hour. The subliminal sexuality that Freudians seek out in fairy tales is made painfully explicit in several scenes featuring humiliation, rape, and the deployment of novelty weapons of mass destruction that leave burn marks in the shape of farm animals.
Director Darrell W. Cox and his resourceful collaborators use every inch of the tiny Profiles space to conjure Dissocia’s bizarre geography, and the pop-up fluorescent stage design captures the spirit of Chicago storefront theater at its most exuberant. But Cox’s actors struggle to find a tonally consistent approach to the unruly material. Part of the problem is Neilson’s script, which lurches awkwardly between Wes Anderson-esque ironic detachment and in-yer-face aggression. The cast eventually finds a terrific sense of momentum—Barb Stasiw and Jessie Fisher are especially funny—but as the first act reaches its uproarious climax, I wasn’t entirely sure why I was laughing. Neilson veers close to treating his characters with cruelty.
The second act’s sterile, psych-ward setting feels like a cop-out after the first act’s intricately cultivated mania. Maybe that’s the point, but Neilson seems to be scolding us for the fun we had before intermission. The twist comes off like a schoolboy prank instead of a fleshed-out dramatic concept. While it does allow Somer Benson, as Lisa, to let rip some ferocious acting after a necessarily prim performance early on, the play is reduced to a less interesting meditation on mental illness. The effect would have been more frightening had Neilson allowed Dissocia to enrapture the audience as effectively as it seduces Lisa herself.v
PANGS OF THE MESSIAH Silk Road Theatre ProjectThe Wonderful World of Dissocia Profiles Theatre
The most controversial plays about Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories tend to come to the United States from England. Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, a ten-minute anti-Zionist history of Israel, by English playwright Caryl Churchill, sparked public protest when it was given a staged reading last week by Theatre J, a culturally Jewish theater company in D.C. And My Name Is Rachel Corrie, adapted by Brits Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman from the journals of the young American killed by an Israeli bulldozer as she defended a Palestinian home in Gaza, was the subject of charges of censorship when the New York Theatre Workshop abruptly canceled its planned 2006 production.
But Israel has its own internal voices of protest against its policies in Gaza and the West Bank. One of them belongs to Motti Lerner, whose work on the subject has rarely been presented on the American stage. For that reason alone, Silk Road Theatre Project’s heartfelt, if occasionally slack, production of Lerner’s 1987 Pangs of the Messiah is worth a look. Originally presented in Hebrew in Tel Aviv, then rewritten and translated into English for its American premiere at Theatre J 20 years later, the play is getting only its third staging, under Jennifer Green’s direction.
Set in 2012, in an area of the West Bank that the ultra-Zionist family of Rabbi Shmuel Berger still calls by its biblical name of Samaria, Pangs covers three anguished days during which the family wrestles with the looming possibility of a peace accord that will create a Palestinian state and force them out of their settlement. Shmuel (Bernard Beck) sees peaceful protests as the most effective course of action, even—or especially—if they involve women and children. (“Children are our best weapon,” his wife, Amalia, declares.) His son Avner and son-in-law, Benny, are ready for war—though Benny, who’s married to pregnant Chava and has already served time in prison for laying roadside bombs, is reluctant to return to the fold of militancy. Avner’s wife, Tirtzah, who’s been struggling to get pregnant, is horrified by the increasingly violent rhetoric of her husband and his family. And Shmuel’s youngest son, simple Nadav, just wants to finish the house he’s building. As the debate escalates beyond Shmuel’s powers to control it, a Lear-like aura of chaos and impending doom descends.
No Palestinian characters appear onstage, emphasizing the deeply ingrained insularity of the settlement (a stretch of wood-and-wire fence visible behind the home in Kurt Sharp’s cavelike set adds to the walled-enclave feeling). The tension is intensified by video interludes of news broadcasts showing increasing violence on both sides and reports of clashes delivered by the characters. But the real battle, Lerner’s script suggests, is for the soul of the family—and of Israel.
Green’s staging takes a while to make that clear. Susan V. Adler’s fluttery Amalia seems at sea as the play begins, and it’s not until Mark Hines’s smoldering Avner and Dana Black’s smart and soulful Tirtzah show up that the fissures in the family’s foundation really begin to appear. And they crack wide open when Brent T. Barnes’s Benny finally lays his cards on the table.
Lerner overplays the fruitfulness-barrenness dichotomy, contrasting Chava’s fecundity with Tirtzah’s fertility problems and playing up Benny’s choice between orchards and armaments. But the occasional uncertainty of the performances and didacticism of the dialogue can’t derail what’s essentially an aching threnody for those tossed in the waves of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Lerner avoids the temptation to demonize, leaving us with a sorrowful meditation on how it will all end. “Questions are over,” Shmuel says early on. “Maybe there’ll be some answers.” Maybe. But Lerner’s play cautions that the answers we get may not be the ones we want.v
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