Krumsee and I went to see Trap Door Theatre’s production of The Unconquered last night, on Lena and Peter’s high recommendation. I’m glad I went, and would recommend it to others, but I didn’t especially care for the production as a whole. “Unrelentingly, painfully shrill” would be my three word review. I know that Trap Door is often fairly flexible about the original script, so I’m not really sure how much of the blame is theirs and how much belongs to Torben Betts. To put it another way, I’d rush to see another Betts play, but would warn anyone who came with me that it might be awful.
In a nutshell, it’s an avant garde play about an anti-Establishmentarian girl, her pro-Establishmentarian parents, a revolution, and this counter-insurgent soldier guy.
The mother and father, who were dressed in stereotypic 50's sitcom clothes, engaged in a variety of heavily stylized mannerisms and ritualistic repetitions of clichés while their daughter (dressed in schoolgirl skirt, with black lipstick) sat in a brightly colored child's swimming pool and ranted her anti-establishmentarianisms. The mother made heavy use of pre-recorded applause and laugh tracks. From an artistic standpoint, this was all absolutely nothing new--subversive Leave it to Beaver parodies have been done to death, and the very concept of "young girl full of spite in opposition to rote parents doomed to passionless conformity" is super-hoary. It touched on such venerable themes as female empowerment, classism, revolution, &c. However, it was done well and was enjoyable for all that. At one point it seemed about to veer into a criticism of intellectualism (while she's spent her life in her parent's house reading theory and planning rebellion, a real live revolution has formed and it attacking the government--and she isn't a part of it because she has been too engaged in her studies). This was a bit more novel (to me) and I would have enjoyed seeing where it went.
What made me sit up and take notice, however, was the dialogue itself. In typical “experimental” style it was rattled off almost simultaneously, and rarely directed at the other characters. However something about it was different. It had a certain richness, a real poetry to it--frequent (fairly restrained) alliteration, juicy turns of phrase, and a few passionately blunt statements. It was highly stilted and very theatrical, and it reminded me of nothing so much as Shakespeare. This combination of Shakespearian rhetoric and avant garde stylism worked like billy-o, and I was enjoying the hell out of the play. At some points the actors (especially the daughter, Tiffany Bedwell) were more in synch with the power of the words while in others I feel that they let themselves get carried away or get overly excited by them, but this was really only a minor annoyance.
So far, so good—who cares how clichéd certain subjects are if they are done in a novel and, especially, a skilled manner. After all, people still flock to see Hamlet, no?
All of this changed the moment the Soldier (Kevin Lucero) came onstage. The phrase "infectious energy" is usually meant as a compliment, but in this case it was simply too much for the other actors. Already perilously close to over doing things, when he came on everything just went straight over the top. Lines that might have had a raw power when projected with authority were, instead, screamed into oblivion. The Soldier (and, eventually, everyone else) created and then wasted huge amounts of energy by charging around the stages like little children. It did look like they were having fun, but it no longer looked like they were acting.
The other thing of note about Mr. Lucero is that he is apparently "gifted" with the skill of making "realistic" noises with his mouth--a poor man's Michael Winslow. He spent almost the entire performance as the only mic'd actor, and would continuously imitate guns, bombs, electronics beeps and clicks, small woodland creatures, and all manner of other things. He added a real sense of comic relief that was exactly as necessary as a hole in my head (and about as pleasant). In a way it was a counterpoint to the first act--he wanted a laugh track, too, except without the irony. The highly talented Lucero returned in the third act as the same character, except with a wacky German accent. In the final act there is a long video sequence with Lucero as a wacky Max Headroom knockoff. Oh, Mr. Lucero, what will you do next?
The play essentially became more and more shrill with each act, and was correspondingly unpleasant. It also broke down politically at around the same time. What had been a fairly trite story about one girl fighting against the Establishment (embodied by her parents) became a more or less incoherent story about whether they would collaborate with the counter-insurgency, represented by the Wacky German Soldier Guy. The Daughter is raped at the end of Act One, and for the rest of the play (until she finally gives birth, kills her baby and shoots her self at the very end of the play) her role is literally relegated to whining "He raped me!" every so often. This was shocking and distasteful, but probably not for the reasons that they hoped.
Which is not to say the two-thirds of the play were unrelieved tripe--there were some beautiful moments throughout. The father arriving, wild-eyed and disheveled with the neighbor's dead and bloody cat, for example. The Daughter and the Soldier spitting insults at each other (while a little shrill even at that point) was a great Taming of the Shrew homage and fairly effective. I also enjoyed the scene in which the Mother and Father fought over a long chain of sausage links.
The set was great--all Astroturf, 60's futurist egg chairs and the aforementioned rainbow colored kiddy pool, and a fascinating 3D papercraft web on the walls. Considering that there is a fucking AC vent that blocks almost all the front light hanging positions, I thought the lighting was impressive as well. In absolute terms the lighting designer (Gina Patterson) really needed more instruments (shots that should have focused clearly on one character included others as well, shots that wanted to be isolating weren't, &c.) but practically she didn’t have them and probably couldn’t power them. It reminded me that I don't actually want to design a show there. It reminded me that there aren’t really very many places that do this kind of theatre (even poorly!) where I would want to design.
So perhaps this play got a bit of a raw deal from me. If the entire production had been as clumsy and shrill (the word of the evening, and with good reason) as the last two-thirds of it, I would merely have shrugged it off as a slightly puerile piece of theatre with some nice bits. The Trap Door website actually quotes Christopher Shea's review, saying "Amid superficially edgy dreck glimmer gems of the truly unexpected", and I'd probably agree with the statement (although apparently we disagree about the play as a whole). However, I was so entranced with the first section, and with the idea of Shakespearean language combined with avant garde frills, that I was crushingly disappointed with the production as a whole. It left me unsettled at the end of the evening, but I’m less impressed by that than I used to be.