The Harried Experiment

Something has happened to the experimental theater.
Time was when an alternative-theater piece was certain to be as iconoclastic as it was entertaining--when performance pieces opposed in form and content to mainstream theater practices and conventions would draw an audience for both their novelty and their political and social commentaries, and when disruption and confrontation were routinely included as part of the night's entertainment by theater groups more interested in an audience-actor relationship than they ever were in the safety of an audience-character dynamic.

Today the experimental theater has lost its notorious edge. And that defiant energy has yet to be matched by a newer generation of practitioners, who've inherited a theatrical framework absent the creative impetus that caused it to be constructed in the first place. After all, life in the 1990s offers quite a contrast to the tumultuous goings-on of the 1960s and '70s in America, when turbulent changes produced a theater of revolt, upheaval and insurrection.

Still, the movement's fragments and its supporters survive locally, as evidenced in the LIDA Project's Daughters of Lot, written by local playwright Brian E. Lewis, with original music by Paul Cure. A close look and listen throughout the ninety-minute evening will reveal the remnants of a theatrical force unparalleled in its power to coerce modern society to re-evaluate its place in the grand scheme of things. It looks and sounds like experimental theater: The production, directed by Brian Freeland, is even situated in that great shrine to the genre--a converted garage in a marginal, somewhat gritty neighborhood. But it never quite delivers the intellectual bite that its bark portends.

Joshua (Nils Ivan Swanson) is a man being held hostage by three women--Martha (Catherine Worster), Mary (Tara M. E. Thompson) and Ruth (Sara Casperson)--who are determined to force some kind of confession out of him concerning his involvement with an urban gang specializing in brutal sexual assaults. Staged in a small, square space defined by one-inch black pipes laid on the floor of the theater, and starkly lit with just a handful of lighting instruments, the drama purports to explore violence as a part of human relationships--in this case, the violence forced upon Joshua's sister, a subject that periodically surfaces in the play to the invariable (and quickly predictable) accompaniment of Cure's music and Swanson's hellish howling.

Platitudes are put forth about suffering, love, and one's raison d'étre, and in the place of any substantive plot or character progression, we are told of horrific deeds that have occurred in this strange, post-apocalyptic world. The gory details include whippings, floggings and simulated sex acts, which occur while the characters make pithy remarks such as, "Isn't there a way to love?" and "No matter how deeply you probe, you will never feel anything more than numbness."

As this macabre collection of theatrical trickery unfolds before us, we find ourselves waiting for the one moment, or sequence of moments, that will hook us into the play and its characters. We watch the actors' Herculean efforts to hold together the fragmented script with their superbly focused performances, and we are willing--no matter how abundant the elements of "shock theater"--to surrender to the manipulation and to fuse our souls with the actors', if only we can find something, anything worth holding on to.

Unfortunately, that never happens, and as the drama labors toward its conclusion, it becomes all the more apparent that there are several practical reasons for the failure of this script to engage and transform its audience. It is never quite clear, for instance, just why Lewis has chosen as the springboard for his story a passage from Genesis telling of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his two daughters (chapter 19, verses 30-37, which are reprinted in the program). If Sodom (Lot's home, from which he fled with his wife and children, and where his wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at the destruction of their former dwelling by an angry God) is ever mentioned in the play--as it clearly should be to correlate the Biblical legend with the contemporary world of sin--the audience is never aware of it. Several lines are covered by sound effects or are lost in the small space due to inaudible whispering by the performers.

Moreover, it would seem that a post-apocalyptic world should arise from and refer to a post-New Testament world, not an Old Testament one. In fact, clarity of thought is quite often the issue with this production in terms of both writing and execution; more insight is gained into the evening's work by reading the program than by watching the performance. (The three women are never called by name in the play, though the program informs us that each is the namesake of a significant Biblical figure. Why bother to give them names at all?) You also have to wonder about the decision to set this particular play within the experimental-theater framework, given that its in-your-face attitude is never used to challenge an audience's traditional ways of thinking about the theater.

Instead, like so many radical ideas of expression and thought that have today become cheap imitations of their vibrant originals, this is a play that uses the hard-won legitimacy of "cutting-edge" dramatic exploration to give a poorly written play a provocative environment in which to live.

It's fitting that the theater should serve as an arena for the clash of human passions and thought and that the metaphorical trees (family and otherwise) of society's sacred shibboleths should be given a firm shake or two to determine if there's any real meaning to be found in them for our lives today. However, mounting a play in a garage and surrounding it with the trappings of the drama's more radical means of expression does not automatically elicit the kind of social response representative of the 1960s, any more than playing the music of those times and hanging out in a coffeehouse will, by osmosis, transform a person into a revolutionary.

Far from seizing control of the mountaintop of theatrical expression, which the experimental theater's pioneering soldiers held long enough in their heyday, the LIDA Project's latest effort, while full of good intentions, succeeds only in marooning a talented cast in the wilderness.

Daughters of Lot, through October 5 at The LIDA Project Experimental Theatre, 50 South Cherokee Street, 293-9193.