The Shlock of the New
Making theater where there has been little or no theater before -- the small towns east of Boulder, for example -- is an exemplary activity, and finding new plays to produce is doubly so. But the process is also highly risky. It takes thousands of scripts that are so-so, spotty, amateurish, slightly interesting and downright awful to provide the compost from which worthwhile theater can grow.
When director Kevin Brown of the Boulder Acting Group solicited new one-act plays for the third annual New Play Festival, he received some 200 submissions. From those he picked Compression of a Casualty, a brief work by Brooklyn playwright Kevin Doyle, who has already achieved some national recognition, as well as Shakespeare's Wife, by Clyde James Aragon, and Russell Weeks's Passing the Hat. Compression of a Casualty is the only piece worth staging; Passing the Hat has a couple of mildly amusing bits of dialogue but ultimately goes nowhere, and Shakespeare's Wife is completely idiotic.
The mind reels imagining the quality of the scripts Brown rejected. It must be hard to find experienced actors for plays as weak as these, and especially hard given the venue, which is Louisville's open-air Steinbaugh Pavilion, where the audience sits in unraked rows of white, plastic chairs and the technical possibilities of the stage are limited.
Shakespeare's Wife postulates that Anne Hathaway actually wrote the plays credited to Shakespeare. We see her mopping the floor while her husband plots with Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe to burn down the Globe Theatre for insurance money. That's right, insurance money. The play is blithely unconcerned with literary or historical accuracy, strewing about anachronisms, seeming to attribute Congreve's famous line "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" to Shakespeare, implying that Julius Caesar was composed after Antony and Cleopatra, discussing Samuel Johnson as if he were Shakespeare's contemporary. At some point Shakespeare even announces, "This is medieval England."
Jen Mazal-McDaniel, who plays Hathaway, is vital and pretty, if untrained, and it's mildly enjoyable watching her rush to write down the occasional pithy -- and recognizably Shakespearean -- phrase uttered by herself or one of her guests. It would be possible to mine comic gold from this plot if Mrs. Shakespeare were doing her inspired work in secret while Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson ignored or underestimated her, but the script is really just a mishmash. Hathaway launches into Shylock's famous "I am a Jew" speech with great fire and rage, substituting the word "woman" for "Jew," because her husband has asked for a ham sandwich. When told that theater-goers are tiring of the Henry plays (the fifth, fourth, sixth, etc.), she suggests substituting the name Chuck. With the exception of Charles Kolar, all of the other actors in this piece seem very young, and the acting is at a high school level.
In Passing the Hat, Kolar is joined by another actor who's clearly more experienced, and also pretty good: Hope Weiss. Two people -- Woman and Man -- take the Heavenly Aptitude Test to see if they'll be allowed to enter heaven. The Angel administering the test is Maria from The Sound of Music, skipping around in fluffy wings and bunny slippers. It's not the strongest joke, but it's a bit funny. And a few lines actually make me laugh, particularly when the Woman explains that those who fail the test will be sent to Lincoln High in Nebraska. "Cadavers in the classroom?" asks the Man incredulously. "Teachers can't tell the difference," she responds.
The third play, Compression of a Casualty, deals with the way war and death are trivialized by the U.S. media -- and, by extension, the populace. It's a topic that's been on my mind quite a lot lately. I spent part of the summer in Europe, and watched the impact of Israeli bombs on Lebanon -- and of Hezbollah's rockets in northern Israel -- night after night on TV channels from several nations: Germany, Czechoslovakia, France and England. There's a reason Europeans understand the world differently than we do. Although their television news is almost as overhyped and choppy as ours, the information they get is less disjointed, far more graphic and specific. In America, we occasionally glimpse a burned child or grieving adult, someone screaming in pain. Europeans see these images more frequently and in more detail. They are also given far more context. When world leaders speak, their thoughts are continuous instead of being reduced to sound bites.
Compression follows a news item that aired on CNN in 2003 about a soldier who died in Iraq. As the announcers mime sorrow and mouth their inane words, the soldier himself comes to sit between them. He gives his name and his age: Joel L. Bertoldie, twenty. He talks about his family, the new baby he hasn't seen. He tries hesitantly to put together the pieces and discover the meaning of his own brief life. Meanwhile, the anchors natter away, creating a curtain of meaningless sound that includes the information that "Barbie has been losing market share." In the first play, Daniel Daenen as Shakespeare appeared overwhelmed by his black, curly wig, but he's good as Bertoldie, giving a clean, low-key performance made moving by his obvious youth.
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