Photo by Rick Pickman
When Dominic Behan wrote his bitter Irish anthem, “The Patriot Game,” he didn’t envision an actual competition to see which players are the most patriotic. That kind of contest would be foreign to anyone who lives in a country where the national flag usually flies only above post offices and at football games — most countries in the world, that is. Such a game, however, might not seem out of place here, in America, where the Stars and Stripes fly, row upon row, at gas stations, used-car lots and swap meets. Playwright Charles A. Duncombe knows this; he mixes reality-TV shows with exhibitionist patriotism and adds a helping of post-9/11 paranoia to create a harrowing night of theater.
Patriot Act: A Reality Show begins in darkness with jingoistic country & western songs pumped into Santa Monica’s City Garage theater, followed by the late Ray Charles’ soulful rendition of “America the Beautiful” and the “Bush” version of “The United States of Whatever,” while a game-show contestant (Bo Roberts) takes a seat within the wooden frame of some kind of isolation booth. He’s here as part of a winnowing process for American Patriot — a Fox TV spinoff of American Idol in which TV viewers choose who will win a million dollars for being the show’s most patriotic person. Elsewhere on Duncombe’s spare set, three interviewers (Kathryn Sheer, Paul M. Rubenstein and Tom Killam), whom the man cannot see but only hears through speakers, put him at ease before they begin a screening session.
At first our player, sporting a flag T-shirt, is confident he has what it takes to make the show’s final cut. After all, he supports the president, the troops, the war, the camps, the laws — everything that has grown out of the ashes of the World Trade Center. Especially, though, the Patriot Act and its proscriptions on civil rights, although he does pause now and then when asked about the government’s right to pry into reading and Web-surfing habits. Those pauses, however, draw his inquisitors to take a closer look at their would-be millionaire, who, it turns out, is about to lose his job as a restaurant-supply salesman because of a corporate takeover of his company.
By degrees, as the man’s interviewers begin circling his booth like vultures, their conversational drift moves from affable softball questions to Socratic inquiry to a brutal interrogation in which the man continually trips up over the logic of his own answers. After 90 minutes, the sound booth has come to resemble a holding cell, and, sure enough, that’s where the man voluntarily remains, waiting to be taken into custody.
Patriot Act is a very simple piece of political theater but not a simplistic one. Like the would-be contestant, we don’t realize until it’s too late that each of the man’s answers to his interviewers’ questions has clicked a lock on his freedom. The frightening thing is that no matter what replies the man (or we) supplies, the judges are likely to interpret them as unreliable and persuade their prisoner that even if he were innocent of any suspected wrongdoing, it is in the country’s best interests that he go along with whatever the government declares as truth.
There are clearly echoes of the Room 101 chapter from George Orwell’s 1984, and just as Winston Smith’s avuncular interrogator assures him that they will meet in a place where there is no darkness, so do Duncombe’s interviewers claim that in our burgeoning surveillance state, there will come “a time when everything will be recorded.” Patriot Act is not at all a disposable piece of agitprop likely to fade with the legislation for which it is named. It is a peculiar examination of gullible America’s trust in authority that finds us fatally incurious about the matter.
Ably directed by Frederique Michel, the show has problems that stem from the stage architecture imposed by the story. Bo Roberts is confined to his booth, while the other actors must stand outside and talk to him, separated by invisible walls. Michel gives them some Pinteresque choreography (the bouncing of balls, clapping of hands, crossing of legs) that initially hints at menace but before long merely looks like an attempt to compensate for a static stage. Perhaps Duncombe’s characters can’t break the fourth wall dividing them from the audience, but they might do well at least to intrude into Roberts’ space or momentarily draw him into their dark corners — not unlike the government.
If Patriot Act is uniquely topical, Blasted, written by the late British playwright Sarah Kane and presented by the Rude Guerrilla Theater, is the kind of work that begs for hybrid comparisons. The Slave written by Mike Leigh? The Room directed by Amiri Baraka? Suffice to say, this is a political drama in which the brute chaos of the outside world bursts onto the already contested battlefield of personal relationships. Somewhere around Leeds, England, a couple checks into a hotel for an evening of mind torture. Boozy, chain-smoking Ian (Bryan Jennings) has one emphysemic lung, a spotted liver, and prefers calling the house staff “wogs,” “Pakis” and “niggers.” Demure Cate (Hillary Calvert), however, is a sensitive young woman who still lives with her mum. (Guess which one is the cynical journalist.)
The pair seems to have a history of vague intimacy, which Ian hopes to parlay into a lost weekend of gin and sex.
He’s out of luck, however, for Cate’s repelled by the very idea and, as a vegetarian, even shudders at the ham sandwiches Ian orders from room service. At this point you’d think that either Cate will pack up and leave or Ian will pass out, but instead he spends most of Act 1 critiquing her wardrobe (“You dress like a lesbo”) or encouraging her to lend him a hand masturbating.
Into this happy scene a little rain must fall, in the person of a Balkan soldier (Ryan Harris) who, with Cate locked in the bathroom, terrorizes Ian while, outside, some unidentified army brings havoc to England’s green and pleasant land. Before long, an explosion rips apart the room, and for a tenuous moment the two men seem united in their desire for cigarettes and a nip of gin. But the soldier holds the gun and, with it, the stage as he regales us with tales of his exploits of rape, necrophilia and sodomy. If Ian is apprehensive about where this chat is going, he is correct to be so — soon his anus is on the wrong end of the soldier’s revolver (it’s no snubnose, either) as well as his violent affections.
Blasted created a huge stir when it premiered in London in 1995, and brought its 23-year-old author instant notoriety. And not just because of Ian’s sodomizing. Soon after this grueling scene, the soldier bites out Ian’s eyeballs, then shoots himself. In the post-apocalyptic calm that descends on the town, Cate must prostitute herself for food, while blind Ian, in one unforgettable scene, disinters a dead infant and feasts on its corpse. As a political statement, then, Blasted is no Watch on the Rhine.
Perhaps it was no surprise that in the ensuing uproar after its premiere, Kane and her first play were defended by Edward Bond, whose own Saved had similarly shocked Britain’s theater world 30 years before. Not only has Blasted been compared with Saved, but also to John Osborne’s 1956 Look Back in Anger.
The contrast seems excessive, though, because Anger, however conventional and misogynistic it may appear to us today, represented an undeniable break with British theater traditions. Blasted, on the other hand, was an outlet for Kane’s specific disgust with the West’s aloof stance toward the carnage that Serbian forces were then inflicting upon Bosnia. It reflected an outraged and immature talent — the editorial shriek of a person who sees the world as a bleak ball of pain. (Kane, who suffered from depression, hanged herself four years later.) In the Rude Guerrilla production, at least, there isn’t a sympathetic character within miles of Leeds, including the Balkan soldier (at least I think he’s Balkan, judging by his accent) and Cate, even though she’s been raped by Ian in Act 1. (At least I think she was raped, because director Dave Barton has Calvert fully clothed during Ian’s assault and later, come to think of it, has her draw a bed sheet over her head before performing fellatio on Ian.)
You’d have to visit a leper colony to find a more unappealing character than the tabloid writer Ian, although Jennings turns in a full-blooded performance that gives his cardboard character a surprising amount of dimension. Like the play itself, Barton’s rather perfunctory hotel-room set (sans TV, peephole, etc.) is more convincing after it is nearly demolished and eerily lit by Dawn Hess. Perhaps more aptly titled Doom Service, this play doesn’t just have a short shelf life, its message is dead on delivery.
PATRIOT ACT: A Reality Show | By CHARLES A. DUNCOMBE At CITY GARAGE, 1340 1/2 Fourth St. (alley), Santa Monica | Through August 8 | (310) 319-9939
BLASTED | By SARAH KANE | Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. at GTC BURBANK, 1111-B W. Olive Ave. (in George Izay Park, adjacent to softball diamonds) | Through July 25 | (818) 257-4952