MORE

The Body Politic

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
Do admit
The presence of
American units
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 Embedded was 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 Body may 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.”

The Body is not always an easy listen — apart from Darke’s lapses into soapbox dramaturgy, dialects among the Matrix’s Anglo-American cast shift between authentic and stilted, although David Beaudry’s flawless sound design brings to bear a crisp collision of meadowlark song and swooping jets. Laura Fine’s Spartan stage design may not evoke Cornwall, but its bleak appointments provide plenty of room for the actors to unfurl their characters’ political message.

Director David Payne makes good use of the Matrix and gets his players to slow down when needed in a show that theoretically could run as one long gag. O’Hagan performs a nice turn as the stolid, resentful farmer Archie Gross, with Natalie Sutherland’s vixen Alice providing the village’s sex appeal.

Ironically enough, this production turns on actors Putnam and Hildebrandt, as the story’s respective lieutenant and sergeant; both turn in believable caricatures of men maddened by absolute power — and the lack of imagination for what to do with it. While Putnam rolls along as the manic officer, Hildebrandt brings needed nuance to the night as a soldier who’s starting to see the grim consequences of unchecked paranoia. If the villagers rediscover a sense of being English, Hildebrandt’s Walt briefly glimpses a responsibility to something higher than a missile battery or even a country.

The Body proves to be a mixed bag — a topical reference to the Patriot Act seems pasted on, while Darke’s script in some parts flies along with the amyl nitrite giddiness of a Joe Orton farce; it’s just that here, at least, director Payne can’t get his ensemble to consistently deliver the snap, crackle and pop needed to convey the black humor lurking in some of the dialogue. Darke’s accomplishment lies in presenting a village and a country whose political hospitality has become corrupted by a superpower hell-bent on bringing about Armageddon, but his story cannot rise above its characters’ own slapstick digressions. The Body, ultimately, never gets around to asking, let alone answering, the riddle that ended Jarrell’s “Losses”:

 

And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?

We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”

THE BODY | By NICK DARKE | Nomad at the MATRIX THEATER, 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood | Through June 6 (323) 960-4418