What We're Made Of

What, exactly, constitutes our national character? Are we largely the sum of our popularly determined and time-tested beliefs? Or is our collective psyche a more mercurial interfusion of passionate and ephemeral desires? Before you get all centrist-minded and declare in your best chardonnay-sipping, Brie-nibbling way, "Why, a healthy mixture of both, of course," you might want to consider the dramatic opinions of Naomi Wallace and Wallace Shawn, a pair of controversial, fervent and thoroughly modern American playwrights.

Originally produced in London (where, perhaps not coincidentally, both dramatists have enjoyed remarkable success), Wallace's prize-winning In the Heart of America is being presented by Tracer Productions in the cavernous environs of the Oedipus Complex, an uptown warehouse that, following extensive renovations this spring, will house a permanent triplex of theaters as well as a restaurant and jazz club. (In addition to providing other theater companies with affordable performance space and emphasizing a multi-cultural presence within the Denver theater community, "Tracer's hope is that the introduction of the Oedipus Complex will influence other arts, businesses and galleries to locate to the 'Gateway to Five Points' area," according to the company's program notes.) Raw though it might be, the industrial-strength edifice serves as an appropriate, almost primordial crucible in which a quintet of disparate characters confront the brutality of warfare, the complexity of love and the arrogance of patriotism. Led by director Jeremy Cole's sensible and sensitive approach, a fine cast of actors effectively conveys the playwright's soul-shattering outcry. Unfortunately, Wallace's initially intriguing story about humankind's capacity for mutual slaughter and sacrifice eventually devolves into a narrowly focused screed about the plight of being gay in America.

As the play begins, the strains of Ray Charles's soulful rendition of "America the Beautiful" fade out while the stage lights slowly illuminate a rusted, blood-spattered platform, a lightly colored twenty-foot-square playing area and a cluttered junkyard backdrop that's adorned with the tattered flags of Iraq, Vietnam, America and the state of Kentucky (playwright Wallace was born in Prospect, Kentucky). We're introduced to Fairouz Saboura (Genevieve Nedder), a troubled Palestinian-American woman from Atlanta who's made it her mission to find out what happened to her brother, Remzi Saboura (Augustus Truhn), a Gulf War veteran who never returned home. To that end, Fairouz briefly interrogates a self-described "Kentucky white trash" soldier named Craver Perry (Josh Hartwell), who, we later learn, engaged in a clandestine love affair with the long-lost Remzi. Then we're transported to a Motel 6 room, where we meet a young Vietnamese woman, Lue Ming (Gayle Galvez), who interrupts Craver's slumber in order to ask a few pointed questions concerning America's "present-day" involvement in Southeast Asia. Shortly after the befuddled Craver explains that the Vietnam War ended when he was still in diapers, we're transported to a scene in which soldiers Remzi and Carver discuss their upcoming front-line action in the Persian Gulf. A few scenes later we meet their gung-ho commanding officer, Lieutenant Boxler (Christopher Leo), an apoplectic Vietnam vet whose disturbing memories of combat were evidently not assuaged by a subsequent tour of duty in the short-lived Falkland Islands conflict. For the remainder of the fragmented two-hour production, the five lost souls interact in a succession of overlapping and disjointed episodes that touch upon such topics as the My Lai massacre, George Bush's promise that Gulf War soldiers would never be asked "to fight with one hand tied behind their backs as they were in Vietnam," and even the Palestinian intifada.

Director Cole implements spare staging, suggestive lighting and well-placed sound effects (a few segments combining period protest songs with LBJ's speeches and Dan Rather's nightly blather are a nice touch) to create an emotionally charged, mysterious atmosphere for the admittedly overwrought drama. In addition to crafting a series of powerful portrayals, all of the performers employ evocative movement and gestures that augment the fledgling playwright's poetic and foreboding dialogue. A trained dancer, Galvez is especially impressive in her acting debut. For instance, when Lue and Fairouz trade stories about growing up--the latter was schooled in the proper way to walk like a Southern lady (with her chin attached to an imaginary taut rope)--Galvez darts about the stage with the delicate, catlike agility of a frightened animal as she remarks, "The lower a body is to the ground, the less of a target it is." It's a moving, beautifully controlled and down-to-earth portrayal that's a welcome respite from the self-indulgent nonsense that sometimes passes for acting these days. Hartwell and Truhn are affecting as the war-torn couple, while Nedder's quietly intense portrait of the wounded sister propels the drama over a few rough spots. And Leo's Duvall-like portrayal, though sometimes over the top, is an interesting study of a combat-happy maniac whose unstable emotional state is exacerbated when he's given virtual carte blanche to kill in the name of his country.

The actors' efforts notwithstanding, though, the drama takes a decidedly ill-advised turn in Act Two when Wallace abandons her message about our shared culpability in America's wartime exploits and focuses instead on an extended, weak and shallow examination about gays in the military. Are the atrocities of Vietnam and the Persian Gulf (the latter a conflict in which the United States embarked upon the heaviest bombing campaign in the history of the world) suddenly supposed to take a backseat to the burning question of homosexuality in the ranks? Are we supposed to equate Lieutenant Calley's infamous order to murder and mutilate innocent and unarmed Vietnamese civilians--an episode that is given significant attention throughout the play--with the military's intolerant "don't ask/don't tell/don't pursue" policy? And is it really necessary to stage an elaborate, anti-climactic scene in which two men encircle each other and kiss when the first half of the play has so eloquently and effectively aroused our concern about broader and more universal issues? By the time the play ends, we're left asking ourselves whether the heart of America is, as Wallace seems to assert, simply closeted by backward thinking or fatally infected by an unmanageable and innate hatred of all things foreign. It's the latter issue that captures most theatergoers' hearts and minds.

But if it seems appropriate to apply the lens of rational perspective when encountering the extreme views of an emotional evocateur, how best to deal with the carefully constructed conundrums that permeate Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon? Now being presented by Germinal Stage Denver, the Obie-winning 1985 drama is, according to director Ed Baierlein, "generally about the triumph of comfort over morality." On the strength of several solid portrayals, Shawn's circuitous, heady and, at times, flat-out boring arguments ultimately prove provocative, if not persuasive.

Penned by the same author who wrote the screenplay for and starred in the offbeat intellectual film My Dinner With Andre, the play concerns an eleven-year-old British girl, Leonora (C. Kelly Douglass)--nicknamed Lemon because of her affinity for brightly colored fruit juices--who spends a great deal of time in her bedroom conjuring up memories of her late adoptive Aunt "Dan" Danielle (Erica Sarzin-Borrillo). Seems that, as a result of her stultifying upbringing by a domineering father interested only in hard financial facts and a spiritually stunted mother who is unable to offer much moral guidance, Lemon has learned to calibrate her ethical compass by listening to the rambling musings of family friend Aunt Dan. Trouble is, Aunt Dan has an uncanny way of convincing her impressionable protege (and, by extension, us) that Henry Kissinger's actions during the Vietnam War were the result of "the habitual humility of a man whose attitude toward life was prayerful." Never mind Kissinger's reputation as a womanizer, argues Aunt Dan: "If he enjoys life, maybe he'll be more inspired to preserve life," she blithely concludes. Before long, Dan convinces Lemon that, among other things, the German government's decision to operate concentration camps was an understandable and necessary choice in a nation intent on "preserving its way of life" and that, if most people were to have regarded Hitler's actions from Hitler's perspective, they'd probably think that the friendly FYhrer wasn't really such a bad guy after all.

Baierlein's intelligent and articulate approach results in several compelling portrayals. In particular, Sarzin-Borrillo's excellent rendering of the endlessly chattering Dan is an enjoyable, multi-faceted amalgam of charming ideologue, trusted confidante and quintessential social misfit. She's nicely complemented by Douglass's gangly, wide-eyed waif, who always seems willing to believe, however tragically, what Dan tells her. A strong supporting cast does much to enliven the talky drama's paper-thin plot.

Still, the play's nettlesome theatrical trickery sometimes makes this near-two-hour production appear to be, as if precisely by design, a no-win situation. (At a recent performance, one theatergoer aptly observed, "It's just monologues coming at you.") For to argue with Shawn or to ignore him is tantamount to acceding to his basic premise that each person will inevitably justify his or her own concept of what is right and wrong. And that a mere thought, when accepted as personal dogma, can make a monster out of an otherwise decent human being. It's a reasonable assumption, one supposes, that's only a problem if you happen to believe as Winston Churchill did when he declared, "We have not journeyed all this way, across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy." As Shawn's disturbing play draws to a close, Lemon's final, revelatory monologue--artfully delivered by a pigtailed Douglass in between sips of bright-green Kool-Aid--serves as a similarly poignant reminder that human beings should indeed be made of sterner stuff.

In the Heart of America, presented by Tracer Productions, through December 19 at the Oedipus Complex, 2120 Welton Street, 303-430-2907. Aunt Dan and Lemon, through December 13 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108.

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