Vacant Lot

In the arts, "experimental" can mean anything from innovative to amateurish, depending on the experience and creativity of the artists involved. But experimentation is invariably valuable, because it leads to the discovery of new forms. Unfortunately, things can get a little bumpy along the way.

The Lida Project is one of two or three local theater companies trying to push the envelope--rather aggressively, in this case--and the company's energy and commitment to theater is admirable. Last season's production of Edward Bond's notorious Saved, done in a downtown warehouse, was brilliantly performed and intelligently mounted. And Lida's current production, Daughters of Lot, by Denver playwright Brian Lewis, is an ambitious attempt to deal with some very tough issues--violence, escalating hatred between the sexes, revenge and the question of redemption. Yet despite innovative staging by director Brian Freeland and an accomplished cast, the show just doesn't hang together.

The problem lies in the writing. Lewis creates a nightmare post-apocalyptic world in which rape gangs roam the streets, torturing and killing their victims and pillaging and plundering their homes. Men are the villains and women the victims, and men who refuse to victimize are themselves beaten or killed. Against this backdrop (which resonates with current horrors in Bosnia and other hot spots around the world), a story unfolds about three women who have found refuge barricaded in a church and the lone man they have captured. Upon him they wreak a terrible vengeance--daily systematic torture--because he is a gang member and because they believe he murdered his own sister. What they want is a confession before they kill him.

The women may be real or they may represent some combination of reality and the man's own tortured conscience. One of the women is surely a fantasy mirror image of his worst self: The Mute begins as a saintly figure who comes to dress his wounds and comfort him, but ends as a Nietzschean temptress, luring him with dreams of superman powers (Beyond Good and Evil) and the rejection of all moral order.

Biblical imagery and allusions run through the text, beginning with the title. The daughters of Lot, remember, were left alone with their father after Sodom and Gomorrah were razed by fire and brimstone and their mother was turned to salt for looking back. The girls decided that since there were no men around, they had best get Lot drunk and seduce him so that his genes would be preserved. What this Old Testament tale has to do with the play, however, is a tad obscure.

Other biblical references are more obvious. One woman is called Mary (Kryssi Wycoff-Martin gives a persuasive, intense performance as a woman who was gang-raped), and another is Martha (Katherine Guthrie is formidable as the head torturer)--a reference to the sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus brought back from death. The tormented man's name is Joshua (Nils Swanson is stunning); his biblical original was Moses's successor, although the name is also an older form of "Jesus." (Is this man really supposed to be a Christ figure taking the sins of the world upon himself?) A woman reads something that sounds like a sacred text, mentions Yahweh repeatedly and asserts that suffering is a payback for sins. And all the action takes place in a church.

These religious references lend weight to a story that doesn't really earn it. The playwright also raises spiritual questions--the role of forgiveness and mercy, the awakening of conscience, the problem of guilt--without giving any of these great themes anything like a true exploration.

The world Lewis constructs is just too horrific to buy. Men do such terrible things in times of war, but rarely indiscriminately--they go after the enemy's women, not all women, not their own mothers and sisters (though some such aberrations may occasionally occur). What could lead to a state of degradation so great that men sell their daughters and rape and murder their sisters? What could create such chaos that women hate all men with equal fire, forgetting that they have fathers, brothers, husbands and sons?

Like the audience, the women have questions, too--the primary one they want answered is why Joshua killed his sister--but by the time we get the answer, it is too little, too late. Without more background, the women are nothing but a projection of the man himself--they have no actual being or meaning of their own.

As a result, this entire exercise is rather solipsistic: a self-indulgent foray through fantasies of mayhem and torture. The language is overblown, self-consciously poetic and way too cloudy for the stage. There may be good ideas here, but a great deal of digging is needed to uncover them.

Daughters of Lot, through August 24 at Jack's Theatre, 1553 Platte Street, 293-9193.

 
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