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Since most patrons will know going in that Cellophane Xerox concerns the Kent State Massacre, they’re not likely to have much trouble identifying the first of many photo fragments projected on the set’s brick walls. Though it’s just a hand, palm open to the camera, it’s painfully familiar and just as iconographic as it is incomplete—an apt metaphor for thedistillation-of-event-into-art theme being explored by playwright Frederick Gaines.
Even after 24 years, those urgently splayed fingers conjure up the rest of the picture: 15-year-old Mary Vecchio kneeling beside the body of a slain Kent State student, screaming in horror as those around her run for cover. Accompanied by photos of gas-masked National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets advancing on anti-war protesters, this is the violent image that brought Vietnam home for many Americans in 1970.
Which is why it’s a natural starting point for the hotshot movie director whose efforts to capture “what really happened” are the sum and substance of Cellophane Xerox. Bobby Hofstra (John Lescault) is a refugee from the world of advertising—a filmmaker accustomed to brushing in worlds of associations in 30 seconds of screen time. To Hofstra, a three-second hold on a single image seems an eternity, which in a sense makes him the ideal dissector of 13 historic seconds of gunfire. The problem is that he’s begun with the intention of finding clarity in a picture where everything’s a blur.
To help bring focus to that blur, he’s brought a researcher and an assistant along for location filming on the Kent State campus. In a makeshift studio, they sift through old photos and sound effects while technicians set up rifles on the grassy knoll once occupied by the National Guard. At the same time, two eyewitnesses to the original event contemplate what they saw and the impossibility of capturing it on film.
Davy Petalski, a longtime campus employee who was standing just a few feet outside the frame when the famous 1970 photo was taken, is now the university’s head electrician. Much to his consternation, he’s been made liaison to the filmmakers, and he’s nearly tongue-tied in their presence. Petalski (Brad Alan Waller) finds revisiting the events of that tragic afternoon almost unbearably unnerving. This is partly because, as someone who passes the site every day, he long ago learned to submerge feelings that are now being forcefully brought to the surface. His discomfort turns out to be the result of something more personal, something he’s never been able to articulate, even to his wife. By comparison, Vietnam vet Sam Riley (Bill Grimmette), who answered an ad soliciting eyewitnesses to the shooting and hopes to make some money off his reminiscences, is positively voluble. He claims to know so much about the Guard’s behavior that day that the filmmakers begin to suspect he may himself have served among them.
Still, their disparate, sometimes conflicting memories don’t get Hofstra any closer to a unified vision of what happened. “I want a nice clear cause and effect,” he bellows, when no one can tell him whether there was an actual order to fire on the students. “Who freed the slaves? Abe Lincoln. Who dropped the bomb? Harry Truman.”
Reductionism of this sort doesn’t work, of course, when there’s as extensive an electronic record as there was at Kent State. Photos place people precisely and sound recordings allow forensics experts to be reasonably certain about the number of shots fired. But that only makes the arguments as to motives, thoughts, and behavior more complex. Hofstra insists he’s after the truth, but what he’s really looking for is the detail—like that odd, almost embracing splay of Vecchio’s fingers, that can’t be faked. This is what he calls, “that little quirk, the contradiction, the “impossibility’ that we see, and then we say, “Yes, that happened.’ ”
That such a moment will make all the film’s fictions and fabrications just as credible as its carefully researched details doesn’t seem to bother him. Despite all his bluster, he acknowledges a fallback position, which he states succinctly to his assistant: “If it carries them along and they don’t question it, then it’s real.”
Playwright Gaines is adept at weaving this truth vs. art vs. history debate into believable dialogue even if he can’t really resolve it in a satisfying manner for the final curtain. Docudramas and Hollywood’s passion for what might be called the Oliver Stoning of history are treated skeptically, but once Gaines has noted that the film director is “lost in the middle of history,” he doesn’t really have much to say about how he might find his way back.
Fortunately, the playwright is served, in Theater of the First Amendment’s world premiere, by a production that matches his verbal thrusts with some remarkable visuals. A live video hookup, six slide projectors, sound equipment adequate for a rock concert, and a fleet of sophisticated lighting devices called Intellabeams turn the stage into a multimedia showcase for some of the most technologically sophisticated effects I’ve ever seen in a small theater. (An unusual program insert bears the names of 14 techies—from Intellabeam programmer to electrics crew—whose contributions are substantial enough that they might reasonably have been given individual bios as well.)
The effect of all this theatrical firepower in an auditorium seating perhaps 200 can be fairly breathtaking. On opening night, when Hofstra rehearsed a viscerally effective sequence in which student demonstrators are buzzed by a low-flying helicopter, several patrons actually ducked. And while such technical extravagance, when lavished on drivel like Starlight Express, invariably sets my teeth on edge, in the context of a play about blurring lines between fiction and reality it seems entirely appropriate.
Doubly so, considering that director Rick Davis seems to know precisely how conscious it will make patrons of the blurring that is occurring on stage. He’s had set designer Jason Rubin supply painted brick walls that rise Stonehengelike and are merely evocative of a campus, a steam iron with no cord to plug in, and chairs disguised with trompe l’oeil clouds. But he’s also ordered a working coffee-maker and a grassy knoll topped by real sod. That all these elements blend plausibly together is a tribute both to Davis’ staging legerdemain—the evening plays briskly and with considerable passion—and to one of Theater of the First Amendment’s stronger acting companies. Shuffling, mumbling Waller is especially fine as the conflicted university employee whose guilty conscience has nearly destroyed his marriage and career. Rosemary Knower is lovely and understated as his wife. And while I found Grimmette’s veteran a trifle overemphatic, that may be due as much to the peculiar poem he has to deliver in his final scene as to the way he delivers it.
Only slightly less effective is Lescault’s film director, who would be better if he weren’t struggling so visibly to live up to a subordinate’s comment that Hofstra thinks he’s “Francis Fucking Coppola.” Denise Diggs and Mary Lechter are convincingly long-suffering as his assistants, while Scott Rinker and Cathleen Kae Chang have amusing moments as temperamental film performers who subscribe to different acting philosophies.
None of which really ameliorates the diffusion of the the play’s second half. Its final moments, particularly, need work. The playwright’s point seems to be that no matter how hard we pursue dramatic closure and neatness in the real world, we’ll never find it—a notion on which he unfortunately needs to close neatly and dramatically. His final line is spoken by a woman who wants only to put the past to rest, and who finds that she can’t. “I remember believing, from before, that things ended,” she says. And then the play ends, without really ending.