Photo by Nino Via
Confession may well be good for the soul, but the start of the theater season suggests it may also be in for heavy rotation on local stages in 2004.
Few acts can be tougher for a stage actress to follow at the moment than portraying serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Charlize Theron’s riveting impersonation in Monster, still very much on first-run movie screens, along with Nick Broomfield’s second Wuornos documentary, has elevated the Florida hooker to a level of pop fascination rivaling that of Frida Kahlo a decade ago. By now we’re familiar with Wuornos’ neurotically expressive tics: the jerky flipping of her hair, the Mussolini jut of jaw, her rolled-back head and popped eyes, and the easy, swamp-mouth profanity. Yet for all this, Cynthia Ettinger has accomplished the near impossible in her performance in Self Defense or, Death of Some Salesmen, a soaring turn that claims the character as her own.
In Carson Kreitzer’s mournful play, now appearing at Actors Gang Theater, the names have been changed to protect the guilty: Wuornos becomes Jolene Palmer; her indolent lover, Tyria Moore, is now Lu (Adele Robbins); and Wuornos’ adopted evangelical mother, Arlene Pralle, has become Lee Ann (Blaire Chandler). The rest, however, is historical record, and many lines are lifted verbatim from videos of Wuornos interviews and court testimony.
However, unlike Broomfield or Monster director Patty Jenkins, Kreitzer attempts to weave into Jolene/Aileen’s violent history a social commentary on prostitution, rape and gender gulfs in American criminal justice. Citing a drop in unsolved hooker murders following Wuornos’ killing spree, Kreitzer’s principal thesis is that most, if not all, of the seven johns shot dead by Wuornos were themselves men who either killed or abused prostitutes.
Kreitzer lays out her themes in a presentational style, with three cops (Ken Elliott, Gary Kelley and Tom Fitzpatrick) compiling evidence about Jolene’s homicides, while two strippers (Aimie Billon and Dina Platias) gyrate around dance poles and act as witnesses in both the murder cases and to the broader crime of the mistreatment of women, particularly prostitutes.
Beth F. Milles directs an ensemble of multi-roled actors with an urgency bordering on mania, employing John Zalewski’s jarring sound design and Adam H. Greene’s fright-house lighting plot to reconstruct Wuornos’ 46-year journey to death row. Bags of Chee-tos and soda cans line the downstage apron of Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set, suggesting Jolene and Lu’s motel-food diet, while vertical blinds upstage delineate scene changes and serve as a video-projection screen.
Despite this production’s technical sparkle, the show belongs to Ettinger, who, dressed in a Tang-colored prison jumpsuit, begins the play by confessing, “I tried to remember a time when I was not ashamed.” In the space of 100 minutes, Ettinger moves her character from pop icon to noir antihero to a very human figure of turmoil and pain. Part Lilith, part Barbara Graham, she emerges and vanishes as an angry mystery, even to herself.
Self Defense is the third play of Kreitzer’s “Women Who Kill” triptych, which includes narratives about Valerie Solanas and Ellie Nesler. She has mixed success here, as the show’s parallel social commentary sometimes scores points with an already sympathetic audience but more often reads as editorial copy — copy that’s stated, restated and overstated. One mistake is Kreitzer’s decision to channel her obvious outrage about Wuornos’ legal treatment through the figure of a coroner (Chandler) who seems to have little to do but stand over a gurney and tremble with indignation as she reels off statistics about murdered prostitutes. Besides lending the show a metallic, lecturing voice, the coroner needlessly echoes many of the points that have already been made more conversationally and relatively more subtlely by other characters. Kreitzer even throws in some not so oblique references to Iraq and might as well have Jolene scream, “No blood for oil!”
Audiences can forgive (or at least overlook) this kind of didactic serenade if it doesn’t slow the show’s momentum, but here it does, to the extent that just past the halfway point Self Defense loses most of its tension and energy. Toward the play’s end, all the pole dancing and pulsating lights can’t pump up its heartbeat, or convince us that all of Jolene’s killings were done in self-defense and that she rid the world of seven murderers. Perhaps an intermission would have helped ease the play’s narrative fatigue and our skepticism, but probably not by much.
Mark Kemble, who a few years back wrote Names, a compassionate and thoughtful drama about the Hollywood blacklist, has penned an examination of one of our era’s most inflammatory subjects — the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-ups of these crimes. A Comfortable Truth, now running at the Lee Strasberg, is a kind of ethical detective story focusing on a priest who might be a molester or a victim of hysteria.
Kemble’s play takes place in 1974, with flashbacks surrounding the period of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination — Juan Carlos Malpeli’s set, cluttered with the detritus of machinery, melted candles, books and furniture, suggests some forgotten attic of memory. Thomas Gordon (Zack Graham), we gather, is a troubled young man who could pass for Darby Crash a good three or four years ahead of punk rock’s birth, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an anarchy logo, black jeans and enough chains to intimidate Houdini. He’s got the attitude to match his gear, as he spits an almost nonstop supply of venom toward his shrink, Dr. Cunningham (Alan Blumenfeld), who might qualify as the worst-dressed physician to set foot onstage.
Thomas, we infer, has had some legal snafus involving children and playgrounds, but he also claims to have been molested as a boy by his parish priest. The doctor’s treatment consists of placing Thomas into deep memory regression by sounding clicks from a dance instructor’s tin cricket — a feat he applies with equal finesse to Thomas’ parents (Shareen Mitchell and Greg Mullavey) and the priest in question, Father Grant (Paul Lieber).
At this early point we sense something’s wrong with this picture. Even accepting the story’s whimsical time-shuttling and the doctor’s uncanny ability to put everyone he meets under the spell of hypnosis, we begin to wonder about the two altar boys sprinkling glitter from a catwalk above the stage. We grow even more suspicious of the penile lie detector Dr. Cunningham has lying around his office — and of Father Grant’s weary consent to strapping it on. (Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley never would have agreed to such shenanigans in Going My Way.)
The play’s date also seems off — in 1974, allegations that the Church was tacitly protecting predatory behavior would have been considered a tabloid blood libel by Catholics; certainly the Church at that time, sticking to its few-bad-apples line, vigorously defended priests from such accusations with a time-tested regimen of denial, intimidation and bribery. Why would it, as is the case here, even feel the need to pay a shrink to investigate Father Grant? He, nevertheless, is a beguiling satyr in black, whether he is conning Dr. Cunningham, himself, or putting the moves on Thomas’ mother and father. Much of his charm comes from Lieber, the actor who so gleefully played the part of the ambitious Elia Kazan in Names. His Father Grant may not resemble any real priest we’ve known (the moody doubters, the fresh-faced seminarians or the gin-breathed confessors), but he glides across the smoldering wreckage of the Gordons’ lives like a mad fire dancer, and in this sense his hypnotic powers match Dr. Cunningham’s.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast, under Kemble’s direction, is allowed to indulge in various levels of overacting; this may almost be necessary to avoid letting the play become a documentary-of-the-week lesson in pedophiliac priests, but it does little to alleviate the dull ache that this evening, with its schematic presentation of perpetrators and victims, soon becomes. Kemble’s trouble is that he wants to write something more than a documentary but will not force himself to describe anything bigger than a narrow truth — forgetting that there’s a line between disclosure and discovery, and that somewhere between the two lies art.
SELF DEFENSE or, Death of Some Salesmen | BY CARSON KREITZER | At ACTORS GANG THEATER | 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through March 7 | (323) 465-0566, Ext. 15
A COMFORTABLE TRUTH | By MARK KEMBLE | At the LEE
STRASBERG CREATIVE CENTER | 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., WestHollywood | Through February 22 | (323) 650-7777
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