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Why am I always so surprised when one play tells me something about another? That’s why companies produce shows in repertory, after all: to gather thematic threads together, to amplify an echo in language or structure. And yet when I discover one writer’s idea illuminated in another’s text, my delight is always fresh as a child’s; it plays havoc with that cynical persona I work so hard to cultivate.
There are several such felicities to be intrigued by among the several plays of the Potomac Theatre Festival, that reliably stimulating annual collaboration between the Olney Theatre Center and the Potomac Theatre Project. In Neal Bell’s Monster, a new take on the Frankenstein story playing on the Olney mainstage, a character makes an out-of-nowhere claim about words and their weightsomething to the effect of “If you repeat a word often enough, it becomes meaningless.” Bell doesn’t really take that observation anywhereit’s one of many weaknesses in his scriptbut see Monster alongside Sarah Kane’s Crave, in which pretty much every character eventually obsesses over one trope or another, and you’ll be astonished at how important the same notion can seem in another context.
In Crave, though, what’s crucial is that however desperately Kane’s four characters try to outrun the import of what they’re saying, it always catches up. For an unrelentingly intense hour, it’s “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” or “Now now now now now” or “Busy happy busy happy busy happy” or “I feel nothing, nothing, I feel nothing”and yet all these four horribly damaged people can do is feel. And fail. And fall apart.
Crave plays like a frantic late-night conversation among our collective demons, and Cheryl Faraone’s production for the Potomac Theatre insists that we sit up and listen to the nightmare whispers; the play is a taut piece of word-music, a fugue in which themes of pain and guilt and longing and despair inevitably overwhelm a faint contrapuntal thread of hope, and Faraone’s performers respond to its dark harmonies and its technical challenges with considerable virtuosity.
And yet I promise you’ll be puzzled by it. Like Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, another Potomac Theatre Festival offering, Crave is the sort of play that can leave you wondering what the hell just happenedand still knowing that whatever transpired was less important than how it left you feeling. It is, of course, a kind of litmus test for the headand for the heart: You take away from such an experience whatever its alchemy makes of the psychological and emotional compounds you bring to the theater with you.
Kane puts four bodies onstagea bruised young woman (Tricia Erdmann), a bitter young man (Ben Correale), a hardened older woman (Julie-Ann Elliott), an empty-eyed older man (Stephen F. Schmidt)and though they seem to be talking to or about one another, you’ll notice that Faraone’s actors never allow their eyes to meet. They talk past each other, hurl pleas and accusations at no particular target, glare into the dark as though to implicate the audience in their various hurts. (There are intimations of sexual abuse, confessions of pedophilia, dark references in which rape seems to have a brutal allure; compulsion and desire and sexuality are inescapable overtones, but it’s exploitation that’s the root of Kane’s complaints.) Behind all the anger, there’s an aching vulnerability that won’t quite be silenced: “Will you make me one?” the sarcastic youth interrupts when another character begins to describe some vague object. “Will. You. Make. Me. One.” he repeats, and suddenly you hear in that last word a terrible plea: Can’t someone make me whole again?
An instant later, a seemingly random observation”A mother beats her child savagely because it runs out in front of a car”becomes, when you’ve had a moment to consider it, a koan for a society that too often kills with its corrective kindnesses. And in a play that strives to communicate the futility of communicationthat contemplates the lacerating pain that is the inescapable consequence of being connected to other people, and the lacerating pain that is lonelinessone bitter impossibility echoes more deafeningly than all the cognitive dissonance that surrounds it: “If I could be free of you without having to lose you.”
Among the shards of these lives, there’s just enough narrative, just enough of biography, to suggest that Kane hid something of herself behind the four faces of her nameless characters. (They are identified only by lettersC, B, M, Ain the script.) And so it will surprise no one who sees Crave to learn that its author eventually surrendered to the demons and took her life; for an artist who found such grief in words, whose world moved to such harsh music, silence must always have been the siren on the horizon.
Harold Pinter traverses nearly as bleak a territory in No Man’s Land, an exploration of the landscape between what might have been and what was but is no more. It can, apparently, be a starkly revealing journey; in Richard Romagnoli’s staging, I fear, it’s mostly a soporific one.
What’s the difference, Pinter asks, between a man who merely dreams of achieving and a man who’s forgotten the worth of his achievements? He offers less an answer than an example pair: Alan Wade’s seedily foppish Spooner, a fabulist of a pub-worker who imagines himself a poet and a cultivated man, and Richard Pilcher’s Hirst, an alcoholic author who, content to dwell in reminiscence, doesn’t imagine much of anything any longer. They are, the scholars tell us, the man Pinter feared he might have been had he not made such a success of himself and the man he feared the comforts of success might seduce him into becoming.
If that’s true, the play’s other two charactersJesse Hooker’s mercurial Foster and Peter Wylie’s mostly menacing Briggs, both young men in Hirst’s householdmight well represent the forces that thwart each of them. They are the class barriers that crush many a talented aspirant in the British society Pinter so often dissects; they are the demands of form and decorum that stifle individuality among the self-regarding upper crust.
Read these things as you will; what’s certain is that there’s not much of a future for anyone here. Indeed, the play’s centerpiece is concerned entirely with the past: It is one of Pinter’s signature memory games, a conversation in which one character takes up another’s mistaken assumption and runs merrily away with it. (Communication and its discontents again: There’s another bit of theatrical cross-pollination.)
Like Crave (and like many another Pinter play), No Man’s Land deploys language as a weapon in an assault on the status quo. The trouble with Romagnoli’s production isn’t that his actors can’t handle the wordplaythey’re all perfectly assuredbut that the studiously magisterial staging takes on the very air of stasis that the play laments. What’s presumably meant to feel dignified feels preserved in amber; “Nothing else will happen, forever,” Foster tells Hirst in one of the nastier games Pinter sets him to playing, and by the time Hooker delivers that line, you’ll be all too ready to believe him.
One might wish that rather less would happen in Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories, which takes a potentially intriguing premise and throttles it quickly and joylessly to death. The showa street-stupid twist on the myths of Ovid’s Metamorphosesis chock-full of incident and dispiritingly empty of meaning, or at least it seems that way in Keith Alan Baker’s rather too slick production for the Studio Theatre’s Secondstage company.
It has been noted elsewhere that the kids in Baker’s castespecially Scott Kerns as a spiky-haired, skateboard-riding speed freakattack the material with enough energy and style to subdue it. That may be true, depending on your tolerance for punk-style snarling, but the material puts up a damn good fight.
Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so hateful: The actors are talented, and they exhibit a certain smoldering charisma in the leather-and-chain-mail variations that costumer Brandee Mathies has orchestrated for them. Peter Joyce’s lighting is hauntingly effective, as is Jesse Terrill’s score (when someone isn’t wailing tunelessly along with it). And there’s doubtless something to be said for a play that can find self-hatred in the mirror of a sissy-boy Narcissus (Cesar A. Guadamuz) and turn the Orpheus legend into the story of a trumpet-playing stalker (Jason McCool) whose Eurydice (Regina Aquino) flees from him into a drug hell of her own devising. But while Iizuka serves up a few such interesting twists, she couches them in such uninspired writing that you’ll barely care to contemplate them. She goes to such fucking, shitting, hey-saying lengths to establish her street cred that you’ll suspect her instantly for a soccer mom, and rather than soft-pedal the script’s nail-scraping excesses, Baker lets his actors play every attitude and epithet to the hilt and beyond.
And is it just me, or is there something tone-deaf about a production that reimagines the tragic, self-destructive characters of Greek and Roman myth as a gaggle of tragic-victim street kids destroyed by drugs and societyand puts its one African-American actor in the role of Dionysus, author of all chaos and purveyor of all things intoxicating? Call me cynical, but that seems like a metamorphosis less Ovidian than Kafkaesque. CP