By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Photo by Russ Langford|
“We don’ ’ave no national identity no more,” a rural Briton deadpans in Nick Darke’s satire, The Body, replying to a bobby’s request to see his passport. It’s a straight answer bent by editorial innuendoes that are not easily missed by audiences, and so it is with Darke’s play, a work full of willfully bland observations that invariably strays, not all that obliquely, toward impertinent conclusions about the British character and relations with America. Written in 1983, when the playwright’s countrymen were heatedly debating U.S. plans to stockpile cruise missiles in Britain, The Body has been updated in its stateside premiere at the Matrix Theater to reflect the post–Cold War American imperium.
Time has been rather kind to this Body — the British still have their respective love-hate relationship with American culture and policy, and thanks to the abject Tony Blair, the story’s nagging questions about London’s subservience to Washington are as urgent as ever. Darke, a resident of coastal Cornwall, sets his story in an isolated seaside village that lives in the sullen shadow of an American missile base. The tone is by turns declamatory, music-hall silly, heavy-handed and whimsical — call it Brecht-lite or Benny Hill–heavy. Darke’s English characters all seem a few ounces short of a pint and first appear, en masse, outside the base chanting,
We, the farmers of this parish
The presence of
On our air base . . .
And we gaze with mild disapproval
Upon those who seek their removal.
This is as subtle as much of this 105-minute evening gets. But a childlike trust in humanity that never lapses into naiveté continually pulses through the proceedings, which then shift to a young couple’s farm. Kenneth (Ralph Lister) sets out to pick mushrooms near the Yank Air Force base one morning. “You be careful,” warns wife Grace (Cerris Morgan-Moyer), as though we were in a “Rapunzel”-like fairy tale and Kenneth was stealing rampion from the local witch. Sure enough, though, he vanishes from the town just as an old busybody (Susan Clark) discovers a body in the tide while hunting for cockles; she’s soon fighting a seesaw battle with Grace’s dad (Michael O’Hagan) for possession of the corpse, as each vies to build community standing through the fame that the body would somehow confer upon them. The law is represented by a ditsy constable whose response to any sort of puzzle is to demand everyone’s passport, while the town’s spiritual side resides in a mumbling, bumbling rector (Peter Dennis) who has decided to walk about in Mandarin garb, having reconstructed his church as a pagoda.
Compared to these characters, most of whom are dreamily indifferent to Kenneth’s disappearance, the fast- and tough-talking Americans at the base are sanity itself. Until, that is, we learn that a Marine (Todd Lawson) has died of boredom, and now an ambitious lieutenant (Ian Putnam) and his practical sergeant (Jason Hildebrandt) give the body Kenneth’s identity — while press-ganging Kenneth into the Marines. From here it’s a short, completely logical decision for the Yanks, engaged in a project called Operation Free the World, to round up the townspeople and interrogate them; if they do not confess to being terrorists, they are to be shot, the reasoning being that anyone who denies the charge must be a liar.
“But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,” a doomed airman says in Randall Jarrell’s poem “Losses.” In a way, Darke’s dead Marine character, Bud, is a similarly laconic voice from beyond the grave — he eventually springs to life and, in a good-ol’-boy drawl, recounts how America turned him into “a highly trained killing machine” ready to come “face to face with some Ay-rab dressed in a frock.” Bud, apparently, merits more attention in death than in life from his superiors, who fear his terminal boredom could infect the rest of the base — hence their need to keep news of his demise hush-hush. Like much of the play, it’s a delightfully daft notion, but once Darke settles down into more serious issues he becomes unbearably serious: During a scene when the incarcerated townsfolk dumbly discover the words to the “Internationale,” they begin singing the socialist anthem in unwitting defiance of the Americans who have effectively taken over their country and their lives, and who are counting down to an apocalypse.
Until now, we’ve suspected that the docile villagers are little more than geopolitical livestock to the Americans, but the farmers’ 11th-hour evolution into political consciousness is a little too fast and cute for the play’s own good. (“Four legs good, two legs bad!” indeed.) Still, The Body manages to do a better job allegorically than Tim Robbins did head-on with his recent Embedded, which dealt with our invasion of Iraq. While Embeddedwas consistently shrill, Darke’s send-up of the Americans is occasionally smart, particularly whenever the lieutenant repeats his self-affirming mantra, “At the end of all this we’re gonna be heroes.” And, though both works run firmly over the top, you get the feeling that The Bodymay actually give pause to a few fence-sitters. Darke’s moral can probably best be summed up by his sergeant’s line, “Sanity is insanity blessed with authority.”
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