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July 16, 2010

A Question of Mercy


Reviewed: July 14, 2010
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Running Time: 2:30, with intermission
Run: July 6 - August 1, 2010

Written by: David Rabe
Directed by: Jim Petosa
Scenic Designer: Christina Galvez
Lighting Designer: Hallie Zieselman
Furniture Designer: Eleanor Kahn
Costume Designer: Emma Ermotti
Projection Design: Ross Bell
Sound Design: Andrew Duncan Will

Produced by: Potomac Theatre Project
Production Manager: Hallie Zieselman
Production Stage Managers: Alex Mark, Lisa McGinn

Paula Langton as Dr. Roberta Chapman
Tim Spears as Anthony
Alex Cranmer as Thomas
Martha Newman as Susanah
Mathew Nakitare as Eddie Ruggero

Death Can Be A Mercy
As part of its summer repertory series, the Potomac Theatre Project presents David Rabe's A Question of Mercy, which is an excellent one-act play unfortunately inflated by two superfluous characters and uninformative monologues. But it is graced by the superb performance of Tim Spears as the AIDS-ridden Anthony, who infuses this overlong production with verve and heart.
The play, based on a journal by the writer and surgeon Dr. Richard Seltzer, begins in January 1990 when Thomas (Alex Cranmer) enlists Dr. Roberta Chapman (Paula Langton), a surgeon undergoing a crisis of faith about her medical vocation, to "help" Anthony, his lover of a decade -- by which he means, of course, will she assist Anthony in his effort to kill himself and so end his considerable pain?
She agrees, but not immediately, and not, at first, to "help" Anthony beyond the proper technique of taking the dozens of barbiturate pills he has had sent to him from his native Colombia. Gradually, however, as she comes to know him, and as he insists on knowing her, she agrees to administer a fatal dose of morphine if the pills do not do their work.
Chapman's journey from reluctance to engagement forms the narrative arc of the play and underlines the play's intent, which director Jim Petosa states in his program notes as provoking "conversations and musings" about how little "our culture has moved...in terms of dealing with so-called 'end of life issues.'"

There is that in the play, but there is also more that turns out to be dramatically less.
Rabe introduces two characters who do little to forward the dramatic action. Eddie (Mathew Nakitare), the doorman to the building where Anthony and Thomas live, serves only as a means to provoke fear later in the play that Chapman will be arrested for her involvement in the scheme because he has seen her enter and leave the building. Susanah (Martha Newman), a friend of Anthony and Thomas, arrives relatively late in the play (she is never mentioned beforehand). She is supposed to apply some sort of chilly voice of reason to the carrying-out of the assisted suicide, but her motivations are unclear and her presence distracts from the play's central moral struggle.
Mr. Rabe also loads the play with monologues, most of them given by Dr. Chapman, which don't add any special depth to the characters or their actions and too often give exposition or explanation that would be better revealed through the dramatic conflict. They stop the play's flow without any compensatory pleasures for the layover.
Mr. Spears, though, carries the show with his performance. He expertly shows how painful Anthony's pain is, how it corrodes both body and spirit. He makes credible the conundrum that the search for release is not a giving-up on a life which Anthony loves but a way of honoring its power and worth. His suicide is a celebration.
And his performance also shows how insufficient the responses are from the living as they face his absence and choice. Anthony is the only character in the play that comes away with his dignity intact and his mind clear. The rest remain bundled up in the pettiness of the daily continuing-on.
Scenic designers Christina Galvez and Eleanor Kahn have devised a spare set with easily moved modular furniture pieces. Upstage entrances are made through white curtains snapped open and closed by stagehands dressed in scrubs, as if to say the whole world is a hospital and we are all patients in some state of decomposition. Hallie Zieselman's lighting efficiently marks the shifts in scene and time, and sound designer Andrew Duncan Will selects simple instrumental music for underscoring and transition, though Mr. Petosa too often uses the music for emotional cues rather than relying upon the actors to do that work.
The play's conclusion doesn't leave us any the wiser about the issues at hand, but because of the play's dramatic slackness, its ambivalences weary rather than provoke us. Tim Spears, though, definitely makes A Question of Mercy worth a visit to Atlantic Stage 2.

Michael Bettencourt

The Barker Poems: Gary The Thief, Plevna: Meditations on Hatred

Photo - Stan Barouh | (L-R): Alex Draper, performer of Plevna: Meditations on Hatred,
and Robert Emmet Lunney, performer of Gary the Thief

Reviewed: July 15, 2010
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Running Time: 1 hour
Run: July 6 - August 1, 2010

Written by: Howard Barker
Directed by: Richard Romagnoli

Robert Emmet Lunney (Gary The Thief)
Alex Draper (Plevna: Meditations on Hatred)

Barker's Dry Acidic Voice
As part of its summer repertory series, the Potomac Theatre Project brings forth two single-actor pieces from British playwright Howard Barker. Though coached in different voices and vocabularies, they both express Barker's contrarian notions about what constitutes virtue, redemption, and truth.
Gary The Thief charts how a character on the moral fringes of a society can, by keeping faith, in a twisted sort of way, with a moral calculus based on being a parasite, can reach a point where ethical emptiness becomes the seedbed of virtuousness change as the ego dissolves and uncertainty becomes the only certain thing.
Gary's story, expertly delivered by Robert Emmet Lunney (who played Starhemberg in PTP's 2009 production of Barker's The Europeans, begins in contempt: "You monkeys/You cattle/I tread your consciences like a brass heeled/Titan wades a sea of eggs." After going to prison, being appropriated by the revolutionaries, becoming a valuable bureaucratic apparatchik -- in essence, where his villainy is rewarded by those equally villainous but who are veneered in respectability and protected from punishment -- he comes to where he recognizes the emptiness of all that and is scoured clean of his attachments.
This is not Christian humility or Taoist No-Mind leading to spiritual renovation but something more valuable to Barker: the self-recognition of how we delude ourselves and how that recognition can lead to the only trustworthy state of being, one that is cool, dry, acidic, scornful (but without righteousness) -- in short, a state shorn of Christianized sentimentalities and the urge for things to make sense.
Alex Draper, who has appeared PTP's productions of Barker's No End of Blame and Scenes from an Execution, takes a very different approach with Plevna. (Plevna is a city in Bulgaria that became a key goal in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 -- a war, in other words, between Christians and Muslims, a topic also taken up in The Europeans). Though written in 1988, before the Balkan atrocities of the 1990s, it predicts the return of an already bloody history of wars prompted by religious allegiances to God and Allah.
Draper, entering as a bon vivant at a party, delivers his communiqués of horror with a chilling wit, and this drollery underscores Barker's point: that hatred, far from being a moral failing, is an engine that drives the rotation of the world, returned to again and again for its power and its satisfactions. As he says at the beginning of his meditations:

All these were killed
Not by the army
But by neighbors
Who in later years
To satisfy the curiosity of children
Talked of the peculiar speed
At which relations deteriorated...

But one said
One with a very ordinary eye
Even when smiling I nourished hate under my tongue
Which flooded
An abundant saliva
When politics exposed the fear
In those we lived among....

In wars of culture it is never enough to be dead.

Our Christian sentimentalities makes us long to believe that we are better than we are, that atrocities are aberrations of human nature rather than its core, that evil is a momentary lapse, but Barker will accept none of that special pleading. He ends Plevna with his own take on the matter. And given the blooded and cemeteried earth under our feet, who's to say that Barker is wrong, or too pessimistic, or morally churlish?

The possibility hate is intrinsic
The possibility hate waits to be born with every birth
The possibility it sits in the same mouth as grief
And floods the lip with pity's pouring
Rising like mercury through the phial
Flashing like the casement catching sun
Its succulence lending life to the tongue

Explain its durability among so much civility
its persistence in the blizzard of understanding
its how amidst welfare
its boldness in guilt

And how it thrives in innocent lives
Like the rat carrying its unwieldy gut along the
Grave channel

Michael Bettencourt

July 20, 2010

Lovesong of the Electric Bear

Photo-Stan Barouh | Tara Giordano as Porgy Bear and
Alex Draper as a young Alan Turing

Reviewed: July 19, 2010
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Running Time: 2 hours, with intermission
Run: July 6 - August 1, 2010

Written by: Snoo Wilson
Directed by: Cheryl Faraone
Scenic Designer: Christina Galvez
Lighting Designer: Hallie Zieselman
Furniture Designer: Eleanor Kahn
Costume Designer: Danielle Nieves
Projection Design: Ross Bell
Sound Design: Jimmy Wong

Produced by: Potomac Theatre Project
Production Manager: Hallie Zieselman
Production Stage Managers: Alex Mark, Lisa McGinn

Alex Draper as Alan Turing
Tara Giordano as Porgy Bear
Alex Cranmer as Blackwood/Turing Sr/Cornish/Sergeant
Peter B. Schmitz as Churchill/Davis//Barman/Greenbaum/Dilly Knox
Nina Silver as Clemmie/Mother/Judge
Cassidy Boyd as Christopher Morcom/Joan
Willie McKay as Kjell/Undergrad 1/Rejewski/Arnold
Claire Graves as Nurse/Fortune Teller/ Undergrad2/Ylena
Lilli Stein as Bronwyn/Varia
Martina Bonolis as Old Southern Woman/ Hallam/Man

To Animate the Inanimate

As part of its summer repertory series, the Potomac Theatre Project presents Snoo Wilson's Lovesong of the Electric Bear, the theatrical version of the movie industry's "biopic," about the brilliant and misaligned Alan Turing: mathematical whiz-kid, World War II code-breaker, pioneer in artificial intelligence and computer science -- and homosexual prosecuted for "gross indecency" who eventually took his own life.

The play moves in a pretty straightforward biographical line, narrated and guided by Turing's childhood toy, a bear named Porgy, and the picture we get of Turing is of a childish genius, unequipped by common etiquette (he thinks saying "hello" back to people who greet him is a waste of time) who, but for the prejudice of his society against his sexuality, would have produced even greater accomplishments than he did.

Wilson paints on a big canvas, so there is much theatricality in the play, beginning with the bear in the title, played by Tara Giordano in a torso-suit of shaggy brown material, topped with ears and outsized paws and feet. She interacts with Turing, guides him on his adventures, admonishes him when he errs, and dies with him when he commits suicide.

Scenes move briskly from boyhood to college to his work as a war-time breaker of the German code to his experiments with computer technology, sidetracking along the way for emotional dalliances (with males and females), philosophical discussions, and self-doubting. The rest of the cast play multiple characters, and at times it feels a bit like the costume changes in The Mystery of Irma Vep, with people sliding offstage as one character and emerging moments later as another.

However, Snoo's presentational style does not give Turing, played with great skill by Alex Draper, much time to build emotional connections with the swirl of others around him since it's always time to be getting on to the next point. This also forces Porgy to voice long stretches of exposition and, at one point late in the play, a stream of prophet-like doom-saying about the revenge of the gods for choices Turing wants to make in his life that, while poetic in its efforts, sounds off-key and a little tedious.

Director Cheryl Faraone has handled Snoo's scene-making well, moving things briskly and interestingly along, aided by Hallie Zieselman's lighting, Ross Bell's projections, and Jimmy Wong's sound design, with its mix of dance-hall and popular music and sound effects.

Turing's life was indeed an interesting ride, and the humiliation he underwent in 1952 for his sexuality, very similar to what Oscar Wilde suffered 57 years earlier, has its destructive legacy in our own culture's continuing assault against homosexuality. But by focusing on the biographical, Mr. Wilson misses out on the excitement of the intellectual, the stuff that really drove Turing.

We never really learn the "how" of the code-breaking or get to explore the dramatic possibilities of Turing's observation that there is no defensible line between the machine and the human (leading to the famous Turing test). We are meant to feel pathos at the death of this man, which we do when he ingests his cyanide by eating a red apple (a reference to Snow White, one of his favorite movies). But pathos is not dramatic, and that's the one thing that the play lacks.

Still, Lovesong of the Electric Bear is intelligent theatre expertly produced, a rare enough commodity these days, and is most definitely worth checking out.

Michael Bettencourt

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