Compared to the wealth of compelling theatre on hand at last year’s festival, the four offerings I managed to see this year disappointed in both content and form. Three of the four were simple realism, so unadorned with theatrical flair they could easily have been written for low-grade television. The fourth was a solo hip hop piece that included some representational video art, which also failed to exploit the possibilities of the medium and its mix with live performance.

All four were domestic relationship dramas with very little concern for a world beyond couples or families, giving the four-play focus a rather parochial if not claustrophobic effect. Their preoccupations seemed predictable, their outcomes prosaic, their insights few. Since Humana remains a breeding ground for plays that go on to be produced in regional theatres (and sometimes further up the mainstream theatre food chain), this year’s offerings (with the exception of Becky Shaw, which I saw last) don’t give theatre-goers across the country much to anticipate as they move from their trial runs forward.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s the break/s oddly presumes to introduce audiences to hip hop’s form, style, and preoccupations, as though this sort of performance is new. Perhaps it is, at the Humana Festival in Louisville, but it’s certainly not on the larger landscape of American theatre. Hip hop performance festivals have been produced annually in New York and other cities around the country, and the performance art form that it embellishes and expands is a staple even in regional theatre seasons. Joseph’s style mixes movement along with the dj sampling and percussion punctuations that underscore his amped up storytelling, and his energetic, charming presence makes his an appealing act. But hip hop’s critical engagement with questions of race and authenticity are given only slight treatment here, as Joseph seems too quickly to try then shy away from interrogating the political meanings of the form and his own stories.

To warm up the audience, his drummer wandered the pre-show audience with a cordless mike, posing questions that were later repeated in pre-taped video segments intercut with Joseph’s monologue. The questions—“What do you think of white people in hip hop?” “What one question would you ask Jay-Z?” “Name a demographic.” “If jazz is the broom that African Americans jumped, what is hip hop?” “What do you think about women in hip hop?”—could be probing, but the answers elicited from the mostly white and mostly middle-aged audience the night I saw the show were vague, uninformed, and uninteresting. When more poignant and insightful answers were presented later in the video clips, they enhanced the earlier conversations and, cross cut with stories Joseph told, gained new resonances and meanings. But the evening ended without pursuing their true complexities.

Some of Joseph’s anecdotes and vignettes were thoughtful and provoking, such as his trip to Senegal, where he wound up working with a white American woman who was agitating against female genital mutilation. He sheepishly described her facility with the local language, and her ability to reach people who embraced her by calling her an “African American,” where Joseph was only recognized as a “Black American.” The irony of his position made his own trip toward authenticity complex and suspect, and positioned the audience to see race and nation drawn in more complicated ways than usual. At the same time, Joseph shied away from the dicey politics of female genital mutilation, letting the story stand without parsing its layers of cross-cultural ethical quandaries.

The story that framed the break/s, and to which he repeatedly returned, addressed Joseph’s ambivalence about his relationship with this white girlfriend. She wants to marry him; he has commitment issues. On four large video screens angled out from the theatre’s flies, black and white fingers intertwine then slip away from each other, literalizing the story’s progress from intimacy to estrangement. Although the failed relationship might have been about racial difference, Joseph doesn’t make it seem so; it’s more of a man thing than a black man/white woman thing in his performance, which reduces the tale to something more quotidian and ubiquitous than might be expected from a performer with some of Joseph’s insights.

A long vignette about meeting Prince and touring his art collection seems finally to be about nothing but Joseph’s access to someone as rich and visible as the artist-once-known-as-etc. Ironically, Joseph’s very charm and virtuosity seems to get in the way of the performance’s import, as he works harder to be liked than to employ hip hop’s critique of racial inequities and unequal social distributions of power.

Perhaps his presence as a young African American man centered on stage for 75 minutes, telling his own stories through intelligent perceptions and a boundless athleticism, is radical enough for an occasion like the Humana Festival. But my theatre-going companions and I weren’t as captivated or impressed as we’d hoped, especially since we’d heard that Joseph is a galvanizing teacher and that other work he’s presented has been much more successful than we found the break/s.

Lee Blessing’s Great Falls began our smorgasbord of three consecutive realist family dramedies. This one-act, two-hander begins obliquely, as a middle-aged man and teen-aged girl share the front seat of a car he’s driving across the country. She’s sullen and alienated; he’s needy and garrulous without making much sense, covering over the awkwardness between them. We soon find out that he’s taken the girl on this trip against her will; for the first fourth of the play, Blessing lets us teeter on an uncomfortable edge, unsure if the man is a pedophile with ill-intent or a moral man whose protestations to the girl’s mom, when the teenager insists on calling her, that he means no harm, that they just have things to talk about, can possibly be true.

Although Blessing gradually reveals who the two characters are to each other, the man (called “Monkey Man” in the script, never by his name) never clarifies his urgent need to solicit the girl’s forgiveness for his infidelity to her mother. Although the rather elliptical exposition made me want to follow along to see how the relationship would play out, why this young girl matters to this man remains mysterious. Blessing’s refusal to provide a back-story means that ultimately, the audience has a hard time caring about whether or not they reestablish their trust and intimacy.

As they drive across the upper mid-West, with him retracing memories of his childhood family vacation for unexplained, apparently unjustified nostalgic reasons, the girl (unfortunately and significantly called only “Bitch”) begins to get the upper hand in their emotional tussle. After she elicits his confession and explanation for how and why he hurt her and her family, she manipulates his feelings so that he’ll help her have the abortion she finally (halfway through the play) reveals she needs.

It turns out she decided to lose her virginity, not to her boyfriend, as she was afraid that would bring on an unseemly panic attack, but to a boy she barely knew, who turned out to be a brutal rapist. After he violently deflowered her, he called a friend to share her, and the two took turns violating her. When she finally got away and turned to her boyfriend for comfort and support, they, too, had sex. She explains to “Monkey Man” that she doesn’t know which boy is the baby’s father.

As he gets increasingly distraught—whether out of love and concern for her or some more abstract moral outrage unfortunately isn’t clear—the girl reminds him of her childhood abuse at the hands of her father and her “recovery” through prolonged psychiatric care. While she uses these facts of her sorry life to shore up his resolve to take her to Planned Parenthood, he finally extracts what Blessing suggests is the real reason she wants to abort the fetus: because she’s found out it’s a boy, and men, you see, can’t be trusted.

The play sounds worse in my description than it actually was, but its ambivalence about whether it means to be a morality tale or a coming-of-age drama kept it from being satisfying. Great Falls held my interest, perhaps more to see what new outrages Blessing would add to this poor girl-child’s past and present than anything else. But the play finally dismisses the girl and ennobles the cipher of a man. He cares for her when a Chlamydia infection nearly kills her after the abortion, then drives her an hour away from her home, leaves her with his car, and severs her from his life. The girl winds up as no more than a sorry tool of the man’s self-understanding, and the violence reportedly done to her slight body, related in prurient, gratuitous detail, is grotesque not because it’s her character’s experience, but because Blessing uses it only to make the audience feel sorry for the man.

The characters are rather thankless, but Tom Nelis brings a kind of awkward, self-righteous searching quality to Monkey Man’s journey that calls your attention, if not your empathy. Halley Wegryn Gross, as Bitch, overplays teenage apathy, so that she seems a careless, rather lazy performer, rather than an actor who’s putting specific, precise energy behind the choice to play at being disaffected. Still, when she started smiling later in the play, her face lit up with an entirely new quality that could have been pursued to more vivid effect. The director, Lucie Tiberghien, makes good use of an awkward theatre-in-the-round with hydraulic lifts that deliver seedy motel and barren abortion clinic settings through the stage floor. The actors stay in character as they move between scenes, accomplishing shifts of locale, costume, and attitude with a grace sometimes more interesting than the dialogue.

Great Falls can’t generate enough ethical insight or emotional nuance to make us care either way about either character. I wound up feeling complicit in a rather pornographic voyeurism, forced to listen to the girl recite her history of indignities, at best, and victimization, at worst, without being guided thoughtfully by the playwright in what to make of or do about these events or the man’s own bid for forgiveness for participating in her history of pain and abuse.

Carly Mensch’s All Hail Hurricane Gordo tries to take its characters on a similar journey toward self-knowledge, but its central figures are too trapped in their own abandonment to choose freedom for themselves against each other. Two young brothers, now in their early 20s, were inexplicably left in a parking lot when they were small by Hippie parents who couldn’t be burdened with children. One brother, Chaz (Matthew Dellapina), is competent and responsible; the other, Gordo (Patrick James Lynch), acts as though he has a social and emotional disorder like autism. He bangs his head against the wall when he’s under stress, touches strangers inappropriately, acts like a child even though he’s a man, and suffocates his brother with his energetic, unfocused need.

Chaz tried to go to college, but Gordo’s needs kept him home. He now holds down two jobs at which you never see him work so that he can pay the rent on the house their parents left to them. At the same time, he collects phone books from cities around the country; we find out very late in the play that he sifts through them looking for people who share his surname, writing them letters in an effort to track down his wayward parents. Gordo, on the other hand, is quite content with things as they are, even though the house and its furniture totter and crumble from neglect, and even though their lives are circumscribed and small. Chaz’s thoughts run to larger things, but his guilt-provoking sense of obligation keeps him from pursuing his own desires.

Although the theme is insistently American—it’s the conflict between Blanche and Stella over leaving Belle Rive, played out on two brothers instead of sisters—Hurricane Gordo offers no new angle from which to study its permutations and effects. Naturally, a girl (Tracee Chimo) comes to stay with the boys, drawn by their ad for a boarder. She’s soon revealed to be a colorful fraud, pretending to be a drifter but really a comfortably middle-class teen-aged runaway whose irritated father comes to drag her back to Manhattan where she belongs. She tries to seduce Chaz into running away with her to California, the paradigmatic land of freedom and opportunity for pioneers and dreamers.

But once again, the girl only provides the fulcrum on which the men play out their conflicts. Hurricane Gordo isn’t her story; it belongs—from the overly precious pre-show basketball game between the two actors until the predictable ending—to the brothers, whose vaguely homoerotic connection never gets mined for more interesting dramatic or characterological tensions. The girl leaves and the boys stay, giving up their fantasy of reassembling their biological family, but finding enough between the two of them and their rotting homestead to preclude adventure in the wider world.

The play’s suffocating aura seeps out into the audience. Nothing changes here; no one really learns anything at all, not the characters or the spectators. The set doesn’t change from one act to the next; the costumes change a little, but not enough to brighten the scene or reverse the characters’ fates. Little of the outside penetrates the detritus of their small lives. But instead of offering insights from such shuttered existences, or inspiring emotions that might make spectators feel something meaningful about our own lives and choices, we just feel tired by the brothers’ stasis, by Gordo’s prattling and prowling, and by two young white men’s insufferable self-involvement. One of my companions noted how the play converses with True West, another story of brothers caught in a vicious cycle of familial and social abuse. But this play pales in comparison to Shepard’s provocative and lastingly satisfying drama.

After these three productions, my friends and I were feeling a bit depressed about the state of American theatre. Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw lifted our spirits, at least because the play knows exactly what it is and what it means to do. The writing, direction, and acting were assured, confident, and precise—no word, movement, or emotion was wasted through the whole often hilarious evening.

Although Becky Shaw, too, is a realist family drama, these characters are sharply drawn and complicated, contradicting themselves with surprising desires, and catching us unaware with unexpected shifts in motivation and strategy. The story plays out a bit like a competition, in part because its driving force, Max Garrett (David Wilson Barnes), is a financier who’s always working angles. He’s a fixer, someone who not only makes people rich, but corrects their mistakes and rewrites their self-scenarios to make them come out right. Max is both astute and blinkered; he can diagnosis someone else’s neuroses at first glance, but his particular emotional deficits keep him from overcoming his own.

Becky Shaw raises questions about fidelity, family, and the future, all through characters who collide and cajole, trying to work angles for reasons none of them can truly fathom. Max’s mother died of cancer when he was 10; his dissolute father allowed the Slater family to adopt and raise him. Suzanna Slater (Mia Barron), his erstwhile sister, becomes his best friend and sparring partner; she speaks his language, can keep up with his rapid, biting observations, and can match his mordant, sometimes wounding wit. He’s protected Susie their whole lives, not by coddling her but by teaching her to be tough, to be what he calls “the biggest dick in the room,” so that she’ll win, as he does, at mergers and acquisitions in banking and in life.

When the Slater patriarch dies, Max steps in to clean up the mess, bartering a truce between Susie and her imperious, physically handicapped but emotionally powerful mother (also called Susan, flawlessly played by Janis Dardaris). The play’s compelling mother-daughter dynamic doesn’t waste a word on fake affection between the two women, and its plot doesn’t move them toward a treacly, fake reconciliation. Instead, the mother is left with a kind of impervious dignity, often delivering insights that sound more rabbinical than maternal. She’s a woman of a certain age, who’s learned to make her compromises to get what she needs to sustain her; her pragmatism is both admirable and chilling.

The younger Suzanna doesn’t know herself half as well as her elder, and allows herself to be buffeted about emotionally and professionally by Max and her erstwhile husband Andrew (Davis Duffield), whom Gionfriddo uses as the yin and yang of contemporary masculinity. For each of Max’s bullying barbs, Andrew rebounds with a conciliatory, “radical feminist” protestation of injustice and healing. Max is a warrior; Andrew is a caretaker, who finds his own self-worth in healing women whose emotional damage attracts him like sirens’ songs. The two men despise each other; Susie, caught between them, is pulled toward Max’s strength and feels obligated to Andrew’s succor.

Into this already complex set of relationships walks the eponymous Becky Shaw (Annie Parisse), who at her first entrance appears such an outré version of femininity that she seems like a drag queen. She’s flighty, jittery, doesn’t know at whom to look, or where to put her hands, yet in her first scene, she observes Max and Susie and Andrew with clear knowingness and insight.

One of the play’s deficits is that rather than playing off Becky’s implicit, rather uncanny emotional strength, it cuts her down to size. Each of her scenes finds her appearing physically smaller and smaller, until by the last scene, I wondered how I ever could have mistaken her for a man-dressed-as-a-woman-playing-a-female, so fragile and wispy does she finally become. Her trauma and overwhelming need drive the plot and the characters’ changing reactions to one another, but her own back-story (which is vaguely, gratuitously racist) never fully explains why she becomes so important and defining in their lives.

Becky Shaw makes a good drawing room comedy of slightly more than errors. Gionfriddo is on to something about contemporary heterosexual relationships; she’s an MFA graduate of Brown, and enjoys sending barbs back at her alma mater for its politically correct reputation and its production of gentle feminist men and ecologically-minded anti-corporate women. Her characters move through the world, recognizing the necessity of compromise, the constraints of what appear to be infinite choices. They’re self-conscious enough about their privilege to be guilty when Becky protests her poverty; they’re self-reflexive enough to know that however flawed their nuclear family, they’re fiercely loyal to each other at a primal, tribal level that will carry them through to the kind of social victories for which they’ve all been groomed.

Becky, the outsider, has to use her wiles and wits to get what they have. If she wants Max to be her entrée into the world of wealth and power, she’ll use her own keen intelligence to manipulate his vulnerability and emotional failings enough to prey on his delusions. Finally, she’s the meek outsider come to make her place in a world that the rich have only appeared to inherit. Her ultimate malevolence is her meal ticket.

A feminist role model she’s not. But at least Becky Shaw sketches the complications of relationships, the compromises and costs, the dark ways in which we’re all instrumental to one another. These characters rub against the world, and the heat of their friction throws off a rather illuminating light, if only onto the heterosexual relationships that always already seem doomed, functional, and short-sighted from the start in this crop of new American plays.

At least at Becky Shaw, it was really nice to spend a few hours laughing out loud.

The Feminist Spectator

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