I can't tell yet if it's an aberration or a trend, but theological drama appears to be making a comeback. These are plays grappling not so much with the morality of the clergy but with the larger sweep of questions concerning clashes of faith, and whether or not we're alone down here.
These were the very questions raised after World War II — the “good” war that became the ill-fitting template for later wars, which were far more confusing, morally. If you read Thomas Pynchon or Kurt Vonnegut, you'll get a picture of a far less righteous and morally lucid World War II, culminating in the morally dubious motive for detonating two nuclear bombs over Japan in 1945 — just to show 'em who's boss.
Fears of global annihilation triggered by that display of destructive technology led to theological dramas in Britain by the likes of Christopher Fry (The Lady's Not for Burning), and by absurdists across Europe, from Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter to Eugene Ionesco, Luigi Pirandello and Dario Fo, whose comedies were about facing the end of everything, and how we carve our own meaning from that realization.
It was a trend that withered with postwar prosperity, yielding (in the serious–new–play category) largely to the comparatively petty concerns of family dysfunction and ethnic identity. That economic prosperity is now under siege, worldwide, along with the assumption that our physical environment can remain habitable. The resulting dull ache in the zeitgeist may explain the return of Big Themes.
Local examples include yet another revival of Waiting for Godot, currently at the Stella Adler; Joseph Fisher's scintillating new play, A Wolf Inside the Fence, about teaching high school history in an amnesiac culture, at Open Fist Theatre; and the two productions reviewed here: John Sinner's Happy Ending and Marios Stilianakis' Water.
Theatre Revelation is an L.A.-based company that has spent the last decade or so performing at national and international festivals. It took the Santa Monica presenter of gay-themed works, Highways Performance Space, to host Theatre Revelation's first Southern California appearance in some time. There were only two performances, last weekend, but the work by writer-director Sinner, Happy Ending, is worth reporting on.
The audience entered through the cavernous venue's sliding garage door, crossing past a stage floor strewn with pages from printed literature and passing by a woman in a torn hoopskirt and a billowy blond wig, who appeared very much absorbed in her own world. On the other side of the stage was a kind of Gothic throne on which another woman in a blond wig sat, looming and glaring, from an altitude close to the rafters. (Creative design by James Goodkind.) A baroque gown draped below her some 10 to 15 feet. A hospital bed hung upside down, suspended in the sky. The photographic image of actor Alan Mandell's face was projected onto the pillow. That actor also provided lugubrious voice-overs, when the “dying man” had a few words to say. Beneath the bed was some kind of ancient hospital equipment and Nurse Matilda (Ilana Gustafson Turner) costumed in a blue-and-white blouse and apron, and the kind of cap that signaled she might have been at some European outpost during World War I (costumes by Sinner).
It soon became evident that the aforementioned women in the blond wigs were sisters, Etheline (Keirin Brown) and Agatha (Betsy Moore), agoraphobics maintaining a deathwatch over their father (Mandell). In case this sounds in any way grim, the production was actually a clown show, a kind of fusing of Beckett and Ionesco, as the sisters awaited guests who never appeared.
Among the first sounds were that of a telephone ringing and Agatha blurting out, “Don't answer it!” And so we understood that this house was populated by a pair of paranoid isolationists, responding to a world fraught with mortality and danger. Against the back wall were beamed videos of Hitler, nuclear detonations and other depictions of catastrophe. From their own company, and their own fantasies, the sisters carved their own meaning and purpose. Sartre would have approved. Sometimes they lip-synched to Judy Garland clips. Not sure how Sartre would feel about that.
By the time she descended from her perch, Agatha's every poetical line was delivered by Moore in a hoarse voice laced with comedic innuendos that recalled Phyllis Diller, around which dainty Etheline performed a series of verbal and physical pirouettes. Both women's faux-Victorian costumes were punctured by holes, from wear, or bullets — or something.
The plot, if that's the word, concerned the unsolicited visit of a Young Man (Paul Tucci), who burst in through that same garage door, insisting that Nurse Matilda was his long-lost mother — an allegation she emphatically denied, insisting that she had no children by anyone due to reproductive issues. But the Young Man would hear none of it, and resorted to pleading and weeping on his hands and knees. The sisters, meanwhile, were just annoyed by the intrusion.
Eventually the man left, the wigs came off, and there was an homage to the possibilities of love, which, I think, Sinner was intending seriously, in a John Lennon sort of way. I found it to be beside the point, which was really a theatrical examination of the dubious physical and memory essences of “home.”
In writer-director Marios Stilianakis' Water, at Hollywood's Lounge Theatre, a U.S. Army soldier, Bill (David Bennett), and an Iraqi insurgent, Ali (Bobby Naderi), find themselves in adjacent prison cells in Baghdad. A kind of cosmic joke is being played on both of them, perhaps by their captors or perhaps just by their playwright. There's a dumbwaiter rig by each of their pillows — a tube extending to the ceiling. Next to the tube is a button labeled “water.” When one of them presses it, a small, plastic water bottle drops out of the tube — but in the other man's cell. This is obviously a formula for a kind of sadistic dependence. Furthermore, their sacks of possessions, containing vestiges of memory from a place called home, have been swapped. And so the pair engage in a series of exchanges: a true story for a sacred scarf, or a pair of sunglasses for a bottle of water.
Their captors, meanwhile, have left the building, not unlike God. Or, to be more hopeful, God lies within each of them.
The metaphysical conceit requires a suspension of disbelief, which is hard to achieve in such a realistic setting. It's a distant cousin to The Arabian Nights, in which a bride must tell her husband a new story every night in order to avoid being killed and replaced by a new bride. Even Stilianakis' conceit of imprisoned characters telling stories in exchange for obtaining sacred relics from their past might be persuasive, were the stories structured to build suspense, or delivered in a style more compelling than having the actors gaze blankly into the audience as they recite their respective horrors against a projected photographic backdrop. Watching the two of them is a bit like watching Mel Gibson and Alfred Molina in Clash of the Titans — but with more introspective confessions than clashing. As textured as these actors may be, it's still a path to lethargy.
Through the stories comes to us — and to them — the revelation that each was involved in a battle and each is responsible for the death of the other's brother. (Ali has survived the death of his entire family of nine.) And their personal culpability is what leads to the intended, shifting dynamics between friendship and volatility, which are not yet palpable.
Technical details defy plausibility. Bill's combat boots look spanking new, as if they'd just been purchased from the military-supply shop down the street. Though both describe charging through bloodbaths, there isn't a trace of blood or dirt or even wear on either of their costumes. The prison cells similarly appear to have been newly constructed and painted, creating quite a facility to be dumped — and abandoned — in.
This is a problem in a work that aims to reveal larger truths through details. Says Ali, “It's not the big stuff, it's the personal stuff that has us locked up here.” He removes a Penthouse magazine from Bill's bag, accusing him of betraying his girlfriend's love. Bill argues that “thoughts” of his girlfriend are sometimes not enough. Ali replies that all he has are thoughts and memories rather than pornographic diversions; it is the cerebral that keeps him going.
This is a fascinating philosophical divide. All that's needed is dramatic tension. And that's a big need.
HAPPY ENDING (WHO WILL LIVE, WILL SEE) | Written and directed by JOHN SINNER | Presented by THEATRE REVELATION at HIGHWAYS PERFORMANCE SPACE, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica | Closed
WATER | Written and directed by MARIOS STILIANAKIS | LOUNGE THEATRE, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Oct. 17 | (323) 960-7711