You know the empire is in trouble when the artists start laying on the guilt trips: who we are as a nation, and where we’ve gone awry. Even when the sun always shone on the once-global British Empire, hints of glitches in the very ethos of Empire cropped up in plays by George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, and novels by Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Charles Dickens. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example, overtly questioned the validity of colonialism — like a spear hurled into the meat grinder of “God, Queen and Country” and its associated machinery of optimism and entitlement.
To judge from a quartet of new plays being given readings in South Coast Repertory’s 12th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival last weekend, we appear, in our playwriting, on the same track as postcolonial Britain. Our country’s leading scribes are picking up that spear from wherever the British dropped it, and they’re pointing it in the direction of William Kristol’s Project for the New American Century, an extension of Manifest Destiny, and the presumption that the world is ours for the taking. At least three of five play readings that I saw (I missed Julia Cho’s The Language Archive) cast a scrutinizing and merciless gaze upon our complicity in the miseries beyond our borders caused by human-rights violations and genocide.
Tony Kushner’s Homebody, Kabul, about an American man’s search for his wife — a repressed adventuress who disappeared inside Afghanistan — was first presented almost 10 years ago, and was one early indication that American playwriting was finally willing to extend its gaze beyond U.S. borders. There were other signs of this at the Ojai Playwrights Festival, which ran from 1998 to 2007 and, like Pacific Playwrights Festival, attracted some of the country’s smartest and most thoughtful writers. Author Bill Cain, who made his reputation with a snappy play about urban education called Stand-Up Tragedy, was a regular participant in Ojai, and is now at SCR with a play called 9 Circles.
Cain’s Stand-Up Tragedy was first presented as a workshop in 1988, through a program administered under Gordon Davidson’s Mark Taper Forum called the New Work Festival, itself a descendant of a program called the Taper Lab. In the interest of giving new plays multiple productions, the New Work festival put on readings and workshops not only for the public, but for representatives from regional theaters across the country. The Pacific Playwrights Festival appears based on that model. Last weekend, the SCR theater lobby resembled a convention of artistic, general and literary managers from Seattle, Washington, to Bethesda, Maryland.
To look around the region and note the number of vanished organizations supportive of new work is to observe the diminishment of our theater itself, as a microcosm for the diminishment of the arts — not a diminishment of creation, but of a serious commitment to new playwriting. This demise predates the current recession, if you’re trying to rationalize this malaise bordering on malfeasance in the nonprofit arena. The Taper’s New Work Festival disappeared along with its development laboratories. We also lost A.S.K. Theater Projects, which served a similar function, and Ojai has been dormant since 2007. With the possible exception of REDCAT, that leaves SCR as the last remaining haven in the area for presenting plays in a manner that can propel them along national byways. Yes, theaters commission new works all the time, but that’s not the same as national forums for new plays.
An artistic director of one of our regional theaters was alleged to have asked skeptically why this matters — why the emphasis on new plays makes any difference. Because new plays — even bad ones — all help to move the form forward. And the failure of the nonprofit theaters to aid that movement, to help generate and promote new voices in the theater, is the kind of recalcitrance that will consign our theaters to the cultural irrelevance that they seem so determined to embrace. How many retreads from New York can a theater put on before it ceases to be a player? And what does it say about a theater’s respect for its community when it uses its plays to spur “discussions” on issues that were played out two, four, 10 years ago in London? That only generates an echo chamber in a time warp, a pretense of thought and passion, a sandwich that’s been in the fridge too long: That’s what we’re being served these days.
The new plays, in concert readings at SCR, shared a language-based aesthetic that conformed, perhaps too tightly, to SCR’s penchant for using words to tug and pull at our morality and ethics. You wouldn’t find this kind of festival in, say, Poland, or even at REDCAT, where theater creations are more locked into visuality. Yet the words at SCR are so good, as are the actors interpreting them, that you fear for what will happen if and when scenic bells and whistles are added. Perhaps the concert reading is the ultimate form for these works — the enchantment of words to stir imagination.
Howard Korder’s magnificent In a Garden, which will be presented next March at SCR, is set in an unspecified Middle East nation that sounds a bit like Afghanistan. Over a 16-year span, it follows a sequence of visits by a second-rate American architect (Greg Germann) to that country’s Minister of Culture (Mark Harelik), for a commissioned gazebo, or modest country house, adjoining a mosque. His task is to create a garden of paradise in hell. The increasingly frustrated Yank is cursed not only by his professional mediocrity (“Is this how you treat Robert Stern?”/“Of course not, Robert Stern is famous”), but by his culturally induced yearning to receive straight answers to straight questions. What he gets instead is a 16-year mind fuck consisting of meetings with leaders who aren’t actually leaders at all, a stream of poetical motifs, non sequiturs and nonanswers to clear questions, such as: Is the project on or off? All of this transpires amid the increasingly apparent backdrop of vicious tribal warfare and an American invasion. And all the architect wants is “to be built” — a monument when all else is slipping away. David Warren directed the topflight cast, Harelik’s wry, pompous and ultimately bruised Minister of Culture was a kind of monument in itself, and Bernard White was also excellent as the president of whatever country we were in.
Michael John Garcés handily directed Bill Cain’s 9 Circles: Imagine Equus — but instead of a damaged boy blinding horses, we get a damaged and bright Army grunt (Bill Heck) from Midland, Texas, serving overseas, who rapes, then kills, a 14-year-old Iraqi child in her bedroom while her family is shot in cold blood, and who then presides over the burning of her body. The play analyzes this soldier in nine slickly paced scenes — perspectives ranging from the psychiatric to the theological and the judicial. The courtroom finale questions whether we should be sending such young people to war — a question imbued with pat rhetoric that feels at odds with Cain’s harrowing and probing inquiry into an American character. As though things would be better if we sent somebody else?
David Wiener’s Extraordinary Chambers (directed by Art Manke) takes us to Cambodia, where a visiting American couple (Kirsten Potter and Andrew Borba) find their own marriage threatened by the wife’s compulsion to adopt, through secret channels, an orphaned infant. The decision to serve her own emotional need for a child smacks up against how such a choice would accommodate their hosts (Darrell Kunitomi and Kimiko Gelman), who are clearly part of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal legacy. The subtle cross-cultural gaffes form much of the play’s delight, as well the ultimate morality of the American businessman, who you’d think could rationalize any horror. The characters come marbled with such wonderful contradictions, and Potter brought a particularly appealing intelligence to the wife. At this stage, the play suffered from excessively lugubrious narration by a servant named Sopoan (Greg Watanabe).
Director Bart DeLorenzo brought out the innate charm in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Doctor Cerberus: With echoes of early Christopher Durang, it told the story of a gay boy’s coming of age as a writer, through an inspiring uncle and his obsession with the TV host of a horror-movie show. Though not lacking in humor, it feels trite at this stage. The play demonizes the boy’s repressed, control-freak parents — with a coy admission near the story’s end that the boy might have been overreacting. Credit the playwright with striving for honesty. Beyond wishing the protagonist well, I just didn’t care much.