A Cursed Life
What keeps a man alive?
He lives on others.
He likes to taste them first, then eat them whole if he can
Forgets that they're supposed to be his brothers
That he himself was ever called a man.
-- Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera
Suzan-Lori Parks has set Fucking A in a bleak dystopia where Hester Smith, who does the hated and necessary work of providing abortions, is branded like Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, with a large red A -- except that Smith's brand, unlike Hester's, continually seeps and reeks. Smith has been condemned to her profession as penance for a crime committed by her son. When he was very small, hunger drove him to steal food from the rich couple she worked for. Now he's in prison and she's trying to earn his freedom, but the years pass, his list of crimes grows endlessly, and she can never earn enough.
All of the characters have an almost archetypal quality. There's the mayor of the nameless city-state who lusts for a hundred thousand years of power but cannot impregnate his wife; the barren wife herself; a gentle-hearted butcher; and three rustics -- huntsmen, in this case -- who carry on imbecilic squabbles and perform acts of unspeakable cruelty, all to the accompaniment of braying laughter. Canary Mary follows a profession as ubiquitous and despised as Hester's, but for the most part, she seems to enjoy it-- she's a prostitute. As for Hester's son, called "Boy Smith" by her and "Monster" by everyone else, good and evil co-exist in his bosom, but they're not exactly contending.
This is a cold-eyed and amoral world, one in which misery is so universal that no one has time for such niceties as reason and compassion, and a knife drawn across a throat can be an act of love. The rich exploit the poor; the poor hate the rich; there's no such thing as justice; and anything at all can be a crime -- including "hanging upside down in public" and "having no sense of direction." Everyone's scrambling to survive, and murder is a reasonable survival tactic; consequently, everyone contemplates murder at some point. The mayor plans the death of his wife with the gleeful acquiescence of his mistress, Canary Mary. The mayor's wife threatens to turn in her escaped-prisoner lover, and he responds without emotion, "I'll kill you first." Hester dreams of taking revenge on the rich woman who betrayed her son: "I could cut her head off." The three huntsmen collect their victims' body parts as trophies and plot the most torturous way of causing death. They settle for the method that killed Edward II and was dramatized by Christopher Marlowe: a red-hot poker thrust into the anus.
The play makes use of several Brechtian devices. Many of the characters could have stepped straight out of Mother Courage or The Threepenny Opera -- although Parks puts her own stamp on them. Among themselves, and especially when discussing matters sexual and satiric, the women speak a language called Talk, which is incomprehensible to the men. Subtitles are provided for the audience. These characters also break into song periodically, but the songs are very brief. Most of them sound like Brecht-Weill -- particularly the prisoners' lament and Monster's evocation of how he became corrupt (reminiscent of the Threepenny Opera lyric "First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong"). There's an astonishing moment when the mayor lapses into Gilbert and Sullivan-style comic patter. We're not supposed to sympathize with these people or forget for a moment that we're watching a representation of reality, not reality itself. Yet oddly, the experience of watching the second act does become emotional, when a period of acute tension is followed by a harrowing love-death.
In addition to sociopolitical observations, Fucking A explores themes of good and evil, life and death, the price of freedom. The language repeats to sometimes poetic effect -- "I'm outside again, scrubbing the marble walk." There's potent use of imagery: Hester's weeping A, her bloodstained apron and the matching apron of the Butcher, who loves her; the candle glow lighting her face so that she looks as if she's praying while she readies the tools of her trade.
The LIDA Project has done well by this extraordinary play, although there's an unevenness to the cast and something oddly subdued about almost all of the performances, as if the actors had decided to work against the horror of the script and underline the casualness with which these people inflict violence on each other. But the LIDA performance space is a difficult one at best, a yawning black hole that drinks up energy, and it requires a highly energetic performance style. Lisa Mumpton brings truthfulness and a powerful sense of conviction to the pivotal role of Hester. Physically, she gives the character a peasant solidity mitigated by subtle and expressive gesture. After the play's shocking climax, her silence is eloquent, full of a terrible but resigned despair.
While everyone else in the cast growls, mutters or half speaks when called upon to sing, GerRee Hinshaw sings straight out in a pure, melodic voice as Canary Mary. She's the brightest thing in this drab environment, both physically, in her yellow dress, and in terms of tone and spirit. Mary is lively and appealing, the only character beside the Butcher we can really like. At least most of the time. Dane Torbenson makes the Butcher goony, dissociated and rather sweet. As the mayor, Matthew Korda is a little too low-key, but he does provide some chillingly funny moments, particularly when he serenades his own sperm with the song "My Little Army." Petra Ulrych is very good as the mayor's wife, emotionally volatile and effectively ridiculous. Like several of the others, Josh Robinson turns in a muted performance, but in his case, it works. It's as if his Monster were a blank canvas -- intensely blank, if that's possible -- on which you can write your own text about good and evil. But this Monster also evokes compassion.
Suzan-Lori Parks has been a force in the theatrical world since she won an Obie for Venus in 1996. The year 2002 brought her both a MacArthur Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog. But until LIDA produced Fucking A, her work had not been seen in Denver. Artistic director Brian Freeland deserves a lot of credit for producing this evocative and thought-provoking play.
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