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The Shop at Fort Fringe — 607 New York Avenue NW
They say: “Abused kids are trapped between the courts and home. Eight actors think they’re exploring the subject, but this experimental theatre project is about to go terribly wrong. Case 22 is a dark farce that asks questions only you can answer.”
Chris’s take: Some years ago (circa 300 B.C.), a Roman actor named Genesius was performing before emperor Diocletian in the role of a Christian. During the performance, Genesius beheld angels, baptized himself, and became the thing he had been performing. Diocletian saw to the prompt execution of Genesius, who went on to become the patron saint of actors. The great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega dramatizes the story in the superb baroque drama Acting is Believing, and the less-great French playwright Rotrou does the same in a worthy but less memorable neoclassical play.
Several centuries later Jean Genet picks up the theme of characters who are transformed into the thing they perform, most notably in The Balcony. In turn, Jean-Paul Sartre writes a book on Genet entitled Saint Genet, a pun on “Saint Genest” (French for “Saint Genesius”).
The premise of Case 22 is that a group of actors are improvising and rehearsing the story of an abused child, and her lack of good legal options. A replacement actor- -called on to fill in after the cast took their roles a bit too seriously and mishandled the previous child actor — has her Genesius moment standing as an abuse victim before a judge. Deprived of all good recourses within the child protection system, a friend advises her to slit her writst — not enough to die, just enough to make it into the mental health system where she will be safe. She slices herself and slumps to the ground, while the other actors marvel at her Method acting and commitment to the role. Is the actress putting on an act, or killing herself on-stage?
The answer, of course, is that we the audience are watching an actress play an actress pretending to have committed herself so deeply to her character that she is actually killing herself. This is community theater, and the line between reality and fiction is as not delicately difficult to make out as it is in Lope or Genet.
The intellectually surprising moment of this performance came—by accident, I think—after the curtain call. The actress Diane El-Shafey (the “social worker”) called the other actors back, announced that it is another cast member’s birthday, and asked everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” to her. Here, suddenly, was the ambiguity the play had lacked. Was this the reality of an impromptu birthday celebration, or the fiction of one, cleverly juxtaposing the morbid final scene? I’m going to guess the former, but Brecht would love the latter.
So, note to director: Keep the post-show “Happy Birthday.”
See it if: You take a socially conscious interest in the child welfare system.
Skip it if: You like your metatheater a bit more transcendent.