All plays are not created equal, of course. Nor, clearly, are all the critics who review them.
One of the failings of this particular critic is a tendency to assume that each playwright is as ambitious as the next, that every play wants to have something profound to say—not just about its characters, but about who we are, what we do, how we live. About what we critical sorts are fond of calling the human condition.
Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. No one would go to Cats (or even to Les Miserables, notable source material or no) looking for the meaning of life. But when a company as smart as Woolly Mammoth puts its artistic director onstage in a one-man show with a title as intriguing as The Chinese Art of Placement, even the dullest of reviewers might be forgiven for bringing a preconception or three to his two on the aisle.
Which would explain the querulous scribblings on the critical notepad: “The military medals are the one tangible artifact. Why?” And “What’s in the urn?”
Well, nothing, as it turns out. The urn, in this perfectly tuned production of this delightfully quirky little play, is no more than a tongue-in-cheek fillip courtesy of director Lee Mikeska Gardner—though the blazingly neurotic, sweetly human hero Sparky Litman (Howard Shalwitz) does keep the ashes of several family members downstairs in a chamber that, as he tells us, is done up tastefully in the Egyptian style.
Of course, that’s just one of the dozens of mortifying things Sparky confesses, in his desperate, convulsive, pathetically needy way, over the course of 90 minutes during which he also (a) compulsively relocates a single red chair, seeking the most propitious placement for the flow of chi in his otherwise bare apartment; (b) sporadically issues awkward telephonic invitations to people who probably won’t come for a party that almost certainly won’t be a success even if they do; and (c) fills us in on his recently ended career as a poet, with details on the unfortunate experiences that inspired it. There’s the humiliating episode involving his crush on a popular high school girl, the not-particularly-rewarding interlude as a vacuum-cleaner salesman, the embarrassing business with the other sexually frustrated guys in the barracks at spy school—and, oh, yes, the mortifying thing with the alluring counterintelligence agent in the dining car of the Russian train, which ended ignominiously when Sparky found himself “in the middle of Siberia with my dick hanging out.”
Which, curiously enough, is how Sparky earned those military medals—for valor behind enemy lines.
Turns out Sparky’s entire pre-poetry career as a spy—the business with the Hungarian air force, yes, but especially the trip on the Trans-Siberian railway—hinged on his bosses’ knowledge that he was “born to be a dupe”; they decorated him for being as big a fool as they expected. That playwright Stanley Rutherford makes Sparky self-aware enough to acknowledge that fact, and likewise to perceive the generally messy state of his affairs, is what gives this uproarious comedy its bitter tragic aftertaste. That Shalwitz makes Sparky as doggedly hopeful as he is honest—he keeps grasping unsuccessfully for answers, for order, in things like the feng shui that gives the play its title—is what makes us care.
That’s the triumph of this small wonder of a play. The Chinese Art of Placement doesn’t want to make grand statements; it’s just an exceptionally crafted, intelligently staged little jewel of a character study. Rutherford presents his audience with an unmistakable loser, then dares it to write him off. His skill and sensitivity—with that of Shalwitz and Gardner—make it impossible.
Joe Banno, the often-inspired director who’s made Shakespeare’s messy Troilus and Cressida even messier in an aggressively updated production for Washington Shakespeare Company, might have done better to do as Shalwitz and Gardner did—to resist making more of his material than it is.
With dramaturg Cam Magee, his collaborator in such rousingly successful efforts as WSC’s Pericles and Source Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, Banno (who also reviews opera for Washington City Paper) has recast an unwieldy all’s-unfair-in-love-and-war story as a cautionary postmodern fable, dressing his battling Greeks and Trojans in combat boots and camouflage and peppering the proceedings with references to CNN, professional wrestling, and the love that dares not ask nor tell. It’s all in the service of the notion that Shakespeare was as cynical and perceptive as any Salon Op-Ed columnist when it comes to the impurity of politics (the international and the interpersonal kind)—but we knew that, right?
Pointing out the obvious is hardly a theatrical crime, but beating an innocent idea to death probably ought to be prosecutable. Banno and Magee, with assistance from their design team and a talented if hapless cast, throw barrage after barrage of ’90s notions, or at least ’90s images, at poor Troilus and Cressida (and poor Agamemnon, and poor Achilles and poor Ajax and poor Hector and the rest); the hope seems to be that maybe something will stick and accidentally create some resonance. What it chiefly creates, when you’ve got a leering pederast priest sharing the stage with wife-beating trailer trash and a pair of weenie-waving soldiers who are clearly playing hide-the-salami in their tent, is dissonance—of both the cognitive and (given Dan Schrader’s uncharacteristically intrusive sound design) the literal sorts.
Troilus and Cressida is complex and unfamiliar enough to be a challenge — even for WSC’s adventurous audience—without any added frippery. What’s most irritating about this production’s unwillingness to trust the material is that the added frippery is all so shallow and obvious. (A big box of Trojan condoms and a couple of fornicating Ken dolls on the table next to the pink flamingos flanking the door to the Quonset hut where Achilles and his boy-toy Patroclus play their war games? Please, Mary.)
A colleague pointed out, after Pericles, that Banno has proved beyond all doubt that he can usually pull off edgy, funny updates of Shakespeare’s least polished plays—that the next big challenge for him is to demonstrate that he’s got the pure directorial chops to tackle the Bard’s most problematic work on its own terms. Consider Troilus and Cressida a major missed opportunity to prove that point. CP