In new play festivals and new play premieres around the country, at least in the Serious Works bins, you can find dramas by the likes of Howard Korder, Bill Cain and David Wiener, which ruminate on the slide of the American Empire as a moral consequence of national hubris. These plays are usually set in Iraq or Vietnam, places where we screwed up royally — in the style of so many British plays, from G.B. Shaw to David Hare, which appeared as the British Empire’s tentacles became singed by the heat of colonies falling away.
What’s surprising is how few plays, and playwrights, are grappling with what is obviously the most profound concern of our era: the damage we’re inflicting on the ecology of our planet. You’d think a reasonable response from playwrights would be another wave of theological plays.
In the wake of the Holocaust, the detonations of two atomic bombs over Japan, and the subsequent arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, playwrights around the world, whom we now call the Absurdists, were seriously questioning via vaudevilles and farces the purpose of being born, the inevitability of our death, and our capacity to reason between these two inexplicable poles. Tragi-comedies by Samuel Beckett, Luigi Pirandello, Slawomir Mrozek, Eugène Ionesco, Peter Handke, Dario Fo, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee and others targeted language as the culprit for our amazing ability to leap from false premises to wrong and dire conclusions about who we are. Theirs was an attempt to explain why people with libraries and universities and churches would try to blow up other people, also with libraries and universities and churches. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is at its core a religious work, with a cameo performance by a slave who, for sheer entertainment, is ordered by his master to “think.” A cascade of gibberish, of broken sentence fragments pours out of him until he drops in exhaustion. Ionesco’s Rhinoceros features a Logician who is actually a cliché-spouting idiot. Ionesco’s The Chairs, currently playing at City Garage, concludes with an Orator speaking a message for future generations about the meaning of existence. All he can muster is a few grunts to an audience of empty chairs, strewn with the confetti from a party long disbanded.
These are plays about what we think we’re doing when we get up in the morning, until one day, for a reason that eludes us, we can’t get up anymore.
Henry Murray’s Treefall, which opened lastweekend at Theatre/Theater in a presentation by Rogue Machine, is the first new theological drama I can remember in a long, long time. It’s not unlike the kind of new play that used to emerge in the early years of London’s Royal Court Theatre — grimy, primal, heady, despondent yet inexplicably giddy-making for the sheer truth of the ache in its heart.
Three young, nocturnal oprhans, August (West Liang), Flynn (Brian Norris) and Craig (Brian Pugach), live in a mountain cabin “years after a series of ecological events of civilization-altering proportions” leaves them with little to do but scavenge at night for jars of peanut butter and other preserved goods amidst the detritus of a destroyed town named Dogtown. Old computers litter the stage. On occasion, they hear a report that another city or forest grove has just burned itself out. There are also references to a plaguelike virus that accompanied the end of our world. All of the windows in their cabin, meticulously designed by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, are taped up with cardboard because the sun is now lethal; meanwhile, the local creek is drying up and trees are tumbling around the cabin at an alarming rate. (Great sound design by Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski.)
This scenario has as much to do with Anton Chekhov’s turn-of-the-last-century play Uncle Vanya as it does with the Absurdists of the mid–20th century. (There’s a scene of rare prophecy where Vanya’s Doctor Astrov uses charts to lecture the utterly bored woman of his dreams, Yelena, about the destruction of the Russian forests, and what this will mean to the local ecology.)
So how does Murray’s trio of survivors find meaning in such a world? Theater, of course. His characters play-act fantasies of a nuclear family. The effeminate, cherubic Craig engages in extended conversations with a doll named Drew and rehearses speeches from Shakespeare, which he’s cribbed from the remains of Dogtown’s library. From that same library he reads Superman comic books and absorbs the legend of a hero who by spaceship escaped from a dying planet. Also, an altar contains the wig of “mother,” which Craig occasionally dons when he needs a moment of transcendence.
August reluctantly plays the trio’s matriarch, in another wig, and is irritated to the boiling point by Craig’s constant nattering and need for attention. Meanwhile, Flynn, the “father,” desperately tries to hold his family unit together. This includes a gentle sex-education lecture to Craig from an anatomy book he’s found on one of their frequent sojourns to the library. And from this biological imperative of male and female organs intertwining for the sake of the future, gay Craig comprehends the full extent to which he’s an outsider.
Into the fray wanders Bug (the luminous Tania Verafield), initially posing as a boy for her own protection, and desiring little more than to be left alone as she treks toward the ocean — the only sight that has ever given her solace. Craig wryly observes the subtle competition between Flynn and August for her romantic and erotic attentions, while Flynn, somewhat nobly, tries to preserve the scattered shards of civilization among them. But even he can’t prevent the crucifixion at play’s end.
John Perrin Flynn’s tender staging elicits gentle, truthful performances from his wonderful ensemble in a tone that counters the play’s waves of tragic romanticism with riffs of subtle humor — all of which keep the maudlin at bay.
“Where are the snowfalls of yesterday?” laments Husband (Bo Roberts, in a deliberately absurd silver-streaked wig). Paris, the City of Light, is long destroyed in Ionesco’s The Chairs (translated by Donald Allen). Husband and Wife (Cynthia Mance, in a similarly absurd wig), live out their last moments on a remote island room through the repetition of trite phrases and the harrowing memories of abandonment and unfulfilled ambitions. Before their double suicide — leaping into that same ocean that Bug yearns to see — Husband will make a speech — a final declaration for future generations — if they even exist, about the meaning of life. For this grand coup de théâtre (playwrights ruminating on the end of the world always seem to turn to the theater as the ultimate church of meaning and purpose), the couple brings in chairs for guests only they can see, because Ionesco wanted us to feel the room’s emptiness, and then to observe how his clowns try to fill it with their fantasies of lecherous military men, belles of the ball and the emperor — not unlike Craig conjuring Romeo, Juliet and Superman.
Husband lacks the confidence to speak for himself, so he hires an Orator (Garth Whitten), who, after a a pompous, florid entrance, delivers that incomprehensible cacophony of grunts.
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Frederique Michel’s staging works in fits and starts, with beautiful balletic sequences and a crescendo of excitement as the invisible guests arrive. The banter, however, is too unvarying in its tone.
TREEFALL | By HENRY MURRAY | Presented by ROGUE MACHINE at THEATRE/THEATER | 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A. | Through September 6 | (323) 960-7774
THE CHAIRS | By EUGENE IONESCO | Presented by CITY GARAGE | 1340½ Fourth St. (alley entrance), Santa Monica | Through September 13 | (310) 319-9939