Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
At the Olney Theatre’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab to Aug. 7
“These plays are meant to talk to each other,” said Cheryl Faraone, co– artistic director of the Potomac Theatre Project (PTP), of the group’s Potomac Theatre Festival 2005. The five productions—two full-length plays, two short pieces, and a sketch—are running in repertory, with a complex schedule that allows weekend theatergoers to spend the whole day at the Olney Theatre’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab.
Such an experience—which reviewers took in on July 17, the plays’ opening day—indeed allows one to hear the conversations between these very different works, though it also allows for some fairly headache-inducing cross talk. Perhaps that’s why I found that day’s final offering, Somewhere in the Pacific, a disappointment, though I think the problems went beyond a dialogue-weary audience.
Neal Bell’s story of the wartime “buddy system”—and its sexual ramifications—starts with some provocative ideas. According to Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two, the conditions of war—frightening, disorienting, emotionally intense—fostered strong bonds among men. Some of these friendships became sexual; one soldier quoted by Berube explained, “You had a buddy and if you carried on, why, that was that.” Such actions could backfire, of course, when nominally straight men reacted against their own queer panic.
Set in this sea of sex and death, Somewhere in the Pacific portrays a Marine unit—including one openly gay soldier, Billy (Bill Army)—facing an uncertain future. One storyline follows Billy and his pals as they shoot the shit, wrestle, articulate their fears, and, in some cases, give in to desires often brought on by boredom, frustration, or power plays rather than love or lust. Another follows the heartsick Capt. Albers (Paul Morella), who has received a letter from his soldier son, David, now dead from suicide. The bloodstained missive tells of the depravities the young man witnessed, some among his own men. When Albers believes he hears the letter being read on the ship’s PA, he begins interrogating his men, uncovering connections between them and his son.
Jim Petosa’s production creates believable characters, particularly James Konicek’s laid-back Chotkowski and MacLeod Andrews’ sweet-natured Southerner, Duane. And the sense of facing the unknown—somewhere in the Pacific, the men don’t know where land begins or life ends—is reinforced by Jarett Pisani’s sound effects and Mark Lanks’ high-contrast lighting design. But the couplings don’t seem natural; they come uncomfortably close to evoking those Cinemax flicks in which people chatting banally suddenly drop their ski suits and have at it. Surely a story like this one should carry some erotic charge. But, as manfully as the actors try, they can’t muster up a way to say “Hello, sailor” that doesn’t induce suppressed giggles.
According to its program, the Potomac Theatre Festival is a “festival of political theatre,” but its politics are mostly presented at the personal level. They couldn’t be more explicit, though, in the festival’s two Harold Pinter works. Pinter’s 2002 sketch Press Conference, in its American premiere, served, on press day, as a bridge between two small plays, Edward Albee’s mordantly funny The American Dream and Pinter’s shatteringly bleak One for the Road.
In Press Conference, Richard Pilcher plays—no, embodies—the minister of culture in an unnamed country who, as the first reporter’s question reveals, used to head its secret police. Self-satisfied, avuncular, and dead-eyed, the minister replies confidently to questions about his regime’s treatment of women (“We raped the women. It was part of an educational process”) and children (“We abducted them and brought them up properly. Or we killed them”).
The dark humor of this brief piece evaporates when Pilcher’s minister morphs into Nicolas—a similarly sinister character but now a family’s interrogator in One for the Road. Nicolas varies his technique with each member: He’s matter-of-fact, even chatty, with the little girl, Nicky (Hope Romagnoli), but he keeps the adults off-balance. And whereas he badgers the wife, Gila (Rachel Dunlap), with a barrage of questions as emotionless as the prattling of a parrot, he saves his most complex machinations for her husband, Victor (Nigel Reed). The cheery aplomb with which he offers questions such as “Would you like to know me better?” and “I love death. What about you?” never masks the hollowness within. His prisoners scarcely speak, but Dunlap’s and Reed’s faces and bodies are more eloquent than any speech might be. It’s a chilling tragedy, just brief enough to escape being unbearable, but still destroying all hope: When Nicolas observes, “God speaks through me,” Pinter’s pointing us toward the twin hells of God-hatred and nihilistic atheism.
Albee offers a more complex and provocative—not to mention more entertaining—social commentary in The American Dream. It also features a family of three, one of whom, Mommy (Valerie Leonard), is so appalling you almost wish she’d make a compulsory visit to Nicolas. Mommy, Daddy (Reed again), and Grandma (Vivienne Shub) whine and bitch their way around a high-class flat—really just the set James Kronzer has designed for all three plays, here embellished by some snazzy Scan furnishings—as they wait for someone who’s late. No, not Godot, but Mrs. Barker (Rebecca Martin), who doesn’t seem to know why she’s there any more than Mommy and Daddy know why they’ve called her. Everyone spouts platitudes like “People think they can get away with anything these days—and of course they can,” accompanied by broad, Kabukilike gestures. And for a time, elevator music trills from the background (including “Fascination,” which also occurs, to creepy effect, in Road). The only characters with a smidgen of self-awareness are Grandma (Shub’s a scene-stealer, and not just because she looks to be as old as her character) and a mysterious, jut-jawed visitor (Lucas Kavner): “You’re the American dream,” Grandma tells the strapping lad, and when she wants to know why he’s familiar, he glibly replies, “I’m a type.” They’re all types, and the plot that gradually emerges is an ugly but ingenious little metaphor. The laughs are intelligent ones, and the froth gives way to deep questions about human bonds, but you don’t have to let them keep you up at night.
The most awe-inspiring creation to come out of this year’s festival is Snoo Wilson’s Lovesong of the Electric Bear, in its professional world premiere. Wilson makes an almost impossible setup work: The main characters in this fantastic, fact-based voyage are visionary British scientist Alan Turing and his sentient teddy bear. Wilson begins with Turing’s death by cyanide-poisoned apple and loops back through his life. It’s a story better than fiction, from his youthful love for a doomed classmate through his career as an academic, his work in World War II code-breaking, and his sad end as a man who couldn’t quite create an electronic brain and whose status as a gay man led to a humiliating punishment.
Aubrey Deeker and Tara Giordano play, respectively, Turing and the bear, Porgy—whose name rhymes with “Georgie,” though it’s Turing who kisses a girl and makes her cry. As Joan, Turing’s chess partner, confidante, and—briefly—fiancée, Meghan Nesmith leaves a glow long after her character is gone. So does Julia Proctor as Christopher Morcom, Turing’s boyhood beloved. James O. Dunn and Leonard both falter here: Dunn muddles the British accents and has an unfortunate turn as a Mammyfied seer. Leonard’s broad mellifluousness serves her well as Turing’s mother, but she’s also cast as Dilly Knox, Turing’s mentor, and there’s no more believing her as an elderly male cryptography expert than there is Dunn as Marie Laveau.
But no matter, for when Deeker and Giordano jump aboard Turing’s childhood bicycle—their “dream transport,” Porgy says, for a trip through Turing’s past—we gladly come along for the ride. Giordano, who radiates energy, manages to be cute and moving at the same time—no mean feat, considering that the character might otherwise be a human-sized Snuggle spokesbear. All elbows and shirt-tails, Deeker’s eccentric professor loves individuals even as he shuns people, fights for his country without surrendering to authority or accepting its sodomy laws, and persists in his creation of a thinking machine long after it becomes clear that he’s headed down the wrong path. Ideas, not actions, are what count in Turing’s story; Wilson marries those forward-thinking ideas to the sometimes faulty actions to engrossing effect. The charm, depth, and poetry of his script approach those of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. And if Turing’s rueful observation that “someone needs to be more comfortable with existence than me” seems defeatist, his story is one of victory—for Turing and, here, for the playwright and the PTP.CP