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Patrons who caught George F. Walker’s Escape From Happiness at Round House Theatre last season will immediately recognize that play’s twitchingly devoted father and son as the lights come up on Criminal Genius. And though the parts of Rolly and Stevie are again played by actors Mitchell Hébert and Jim Grollman, that’s not really the reason.
It’s the twitches you recognize.
Rolly’s signature spasm is his inability to leave well enough alone. He can’t just let Stevie sit on a motel bed staring intently at a clock. He has to worry and fret over what his son is doing until he’s worked himself into a frenzy of pacing, and then he has to yell and stomp and do everything he can to stop the staring except the one thing that might actually stop it. Rolly is ineffectuality made fleshhilariously so, because he is absolutely certain that he’s the one person around who has considered all the angles and is therefore in a position to act.
Stevie, meanwhile, brings an intensity to staring that is truly wondrous to behold. His leg jiggles, his brow furrows, and his hands grip the clock so tightly it seems likely to shatter. The lad is hardly the brightest of bulbs, but credit him with determination. He’s been staring at the clock for hours now in an effort to relax, and when his father asks him if he feels relaxed, he answers “No” and goes right on staring. Later, he’ll bring a similar concentration to peering out the window at a pitch-black parking lot on a moonless night. Stevie is just as ineffectual as Rolly, but he makes no pretense of having considered any angles at all, or even of knowing they exist.
When we meet them, these two have just botched a job of arson they were hired to commit and are terrified to leave the motel room. They’re also terrified to stay in the motel room, but since they’ve inconveniently acquired an extremely bossy hostage named Amanda (Katie Barrett) in the process of botching the job, they have no choice.
Enter motel manager Phillie (Marty Lodge) in an alcoholic haze, determined to collect the room fee, but willing to settle, in a pinch, for a pair of used shoes. He’s also damaged goods, though he has a practical side to him that the others don’t. His common-sensical, if stewed, viewpoint initially makes him seem useful to Shirley (Jane Beard), the excitable middleman who commissioned the arson and who is now frantically trying to figure out how she’ll explain to her gangster boss that it hasn’t taken place.
That’s a full complement of eccentric Walker characters, and what they mostly do in Criminal Genius is exhibit a jaw-dropping, guffaw-inducing lack of genius of any sort. Under Daniel De Raey’s frenetically animated direction, these folks are foul-mouthed, empty-headed dolts of the highest orderso inept at the task of arson they’ve set for themselves that when one of them needs a light for a cigarette, they can’t even come up with a match.
To the extent that shenanigans of this sort are what you’re looking for when you head to the theater, you’re going to emerge deeply satisfied. Still, there’s a caveat: The play doesn’t do much more than set up a no-win situation and play out its consequences to their lethally funny conclusion. I laughed my head off, but I found the evening a good deal thinner than Round House’s earlierand, in many ways, frothierproductions of this prodigiously talented Canadian’s plays.
Previously, there has always seemed to be an underpinning of substance to the clowningan urgent need to connect on the part of Walker’s characters, a specifically familial bond that gives their bickering motive and heft. Criminal Genius, which ends badly for everyone concerned, and therefore suggests that the author means to say something serious, feels no more substantial than a Quentin Tarantino movie. It has ferocity to spare, hilarity galore, and darkness for days. To what purpose, I haven’t the foggiest.
Watching Arena Stage’s avant-garde (and surprisingly funny) deconstruction of Dance of Death a couple of seasons ago, I was elated that director JoAnne Akalaitis had found what seemed the perfect way to make Strindberg’s realistic, middle-period plays come alive for contemporary audiences. The approach appeared foolproof: Turn this unstable author’s supremely bitter protagonists into snarling caricatures in a fever dream and play their fights as sparring matches. Suddenly, their monstrous selfishness made sense, and their various corruptions of human nature became comically understandable.
Having now seen Strindberg’s chamber work Miss Julie staged in a comparably stylized manner by Washington Shakespeare Company, however, I’m prepared to concede that the approach has its limits.
Miss Julie concerns a dangerous flirtation between the aristocratic, 25-year-old title character (Michelle Shupe) and one of her household’s many servants. Julie is just looking for a way to amuse herself. Jean (Christopher Wilson) is a socially ambitious valet who is engaged to the household’s cook (Allyson Currin), but who yearns to make the leap from poverty to the middle class. They both get in deeper than they plan.
The play is generally approached as a wrenching story of class strictures and emotional blackmail. Master-servant questions are naturally turned on their heads when a household’s mistress becomes a different kind of mistress to her father’s valet. And, of course, as always in Strindberg, romance turns out to be anything but sweet. The characters must negotiate hairpin turns in motivation, as Jean nervously pushes Julie away, then desperately draws her to him, then pushes her away again, while she hesitates…and is lost.
Director Christopher Henley runs into problems not because he tries to milk this plot for dark comedy, but because his staging is only about half as stylized as it needs to be to carry it off. Take Shupe’s Julie, who enters in a beaded gown, carrying a riding crop that she’s soon smacking smartly against various posteriors. Claiming to be egalitarian, she’s an obvious hypocrite”All rank is laid aside,” she says, then snaps her fingers peremptorily for a beerbut even if she gets a few laughs along the way, the main effect of such bratty posturing is merely to make her seem a spoiled teenager. Played by a man in drag, the concept might work, but WSC’s staging isn’t taking things that far.
Wilson, meanwhile, is climbing on stools to pontificate, managing mostly to sound actorish rather than presumptuous, sacrificing any empathy contemporary audiences might have been willing to extend his character for having the bad luck to be born into poverty. Only Currin, playing the cook in an edgy but mostly naturalistic way, really seems right. And with the emotion drained from the proceedings, those hairpin turns of motivation end up seeming awfully capricious.
The evening at least looks good, with Edu. Bernardino’s snappy costumes clearly delineating social class. Holly Beck’s metal, cagelike set pieces look as if they’ll need very little modification when Kafka’s Metamorphosis joins Miss Julie in rep next month. And Ayun Fedorcha’s lighting is suitably sharp-edged.
Quidam, the latest incarnation of Cirque du Soleil to set up its blue- and-yellow tent in the metro area, has several things going for it. Chief among them is a splendid ringmaster (John Gilkey) who looks a bit like a topknotted Tom Waits, and suggests, with his vaguely sinister clowning, that he’s a slightly nicer cousin of Cabaret’s ghoulish Emcee.
There’s also a nifty balancing act, plus some Chinese strings-and-thimbles juggling that’s pleasantly diverting. Svelte aerialists do things with fabric that Givenchy hasn’t dreamed of, and Chris Lashua has perfected a neat man-in-a-wheel routine that would make a great entrance gimmick for Mick Jagger on his next stadium tour.
All of these, and another seven acts involving hoops, trapezes, floating buddhas, and jump ropes, are connected by the somewhat strenuous whimsy for which Cirque du Soleil has become known over the years. As with all the Cirque shows, Quidam is basically a big-top Cats without fur. Theoretically, there’s a storysomething about a little girl with clueless parentsbut it’s just there to provide a smidgen of ballast for the post-adolescent set.
The band’s New Age noodlings and crescendos are roughly equivalent to those Andrew Lloyd Webber devised for his feline extravaganza, and Quidam’s lyrics have the virtue of not meaning anything at all, which makes them infinitely preferable to nonsense verse about jellical calicos. Now and forever, no doubt. Ah, well.CP