REVIEW: Blackbird (Guild Theater)

 

Romance Interruptus or the Same Old Coitus Interruptus?

 

 Blackbird - Promo 004

  
Guild Theater presents
   
Blackbird
   
Written by David Harrower
Directed by Daniel Scott
at Stage Left Theatre, address (map)
through August 25th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Transgression—punishment—bang! Pitiless! Pitiless! That’s the only way.”
         —Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I can’t tell you the extent to which I’ve anticipated reviewing Guild Theater’s production of Blackbird. The success of David Harrower’s 80-minute one-act has been legendary. Winner of the 2007 Olivier Award, critical acclaim on Broadway with Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill, and then local fame generated by Victory Gardens’ superlative production last July, Blackbird was a well-established phenomenon before I stepped through the doors of Stage Left Theatre to see it.

That build-up may have been a little too much for Guild Theater’s Spartan, no-frills rendering. But the problem lies more in Harrower’s basic plot premise and not so much in Daniel Scott’s careful direction or the sincerely wrought performances of David Schaplowsky as Ray and Cassandra Cushman as Una.

A young woman confronts a middle-age man at his workplace; he shows deep anxiety at her presence there and repeatedly asks her to leave. She persists in interrogating him with fragments of past events. It soon becomes clear that they know each other from long ago and the young woman is pursuing with him her unfinished business over a failed relationship. The nature of that relationship reveals its shock, scandal and gravity once the audience learns this couple’s “affair” began when he was 40 and she was 12.

Now as to the “true” nature of their relationship: was it true romance for the both of them or was it child abuse? Was it undeniable passion or overwhelming perversity? Was her interest in him bold, precocious sexuality or was it the vulnerability of childhood loneliness, chaffing under parental oppression? Was his interest in her an inappropriate love he could not master or was it cold, calculated exploitation?

The audience has nothing to rely upon except the fragmented narratives and traded accusations of two unreliable characters. Only one other character enters briefly at the end. The rest is “He Said, She Said,”–only Una was prepubescent when the deed was done. Harrower’s script dangles the audience between the play’s thematic moral absolutes. Is Una a damaged young woman whose innocent childhood was blighted too early, or a bold, sexually rebellious girl whose sexual transgressions went waaay beyond conventional understanding? Was she “asking for it”?

Is she still asking for it by stalking Ray with her confrontation? Is her confrontation about achieving closure or is it about reopening their relationship now that both of them are adults, legally speaking? Is Ray a lying, seducing cad without any moral compass or a repentant sinner striving to adhere to his new, principled life? Can he resist Una’s disturbingly needy bid for his attention and love or will his resistance collapse under replayed memories, emotional immaturity, and unbalanced psychological patterns re-emerging from the depths? Will mad, unbridled and perverse love win again against decency, mental health and morality?

Thus the thematic and ethical juggling of Blackbird leads to its inevitable climax. Or should I say, climax interruptus? Both Cushman and Schaplowsky build deeply sympathetic, if troubling, characters. Scott’s direction emphasizes absolute naturalness and that fits Stage Left’s intimate theater space to a tee. Schaplowsky in particular brings searing emotional exposure to Ray’s troubled soul. Cushman strives to bring psychological verity to Una’s troubled state and Scott’s direction certainly gives the actors the space to grow into these parts. The trouble is that these characters’ troubled souls are dragging on the dramatic pace and Guild’s production lacks the drive that can keep an audience guessing at which moral conundrum will come up next.

Unfortunately Blackbird’s problems are larger than slower-than-necessary, if thoughtful, performances. Essentially, Blackbird is pornography dressed up to look like social consciousness—dressed up perhaps because it thinks its audience will always be polite company. Bad enough that Harrower’s play begins with that stereotypical porn canard—the woman who falls in love with her (statutory) rapist—the whole point of this play’s sojourn is to precisely end up with our star-crossed lovers’ final sexual encounter, which is then immediately thwarted by the entry of Girl (Marrissa Meo – recently seen in the highly-successful 7-month run of Red Twist’s Pillowman). That’s the moment Una and Ray’s psychologically illicit tryst finally falls apart. It’s porn with a conscience but, for all its other stereotypes, Harrower might as well have brought in a character playing the Pizza Guy for good measure.

Let’s be fair. Much more precisely, Blackbird is an almost comically complex melodrama. Comedy, melodrama and pornography are all genres that depend on types for dramatic action more than full-fledged, three-dimensional characters. Those types are put into situations and those situations play out in fairly predictable ways. Blackbird’s ultimate sexual encounter is telegraphed long before the end. One can feel manipulated by all the play’s twisty steps along the way, but ultimately, we’ll get to the porn ending when the woman finally shows she’s wanted her rapist all along. Since they are so true to porn type, can any real connection be built between the audience and these characters? Ray and Una themselves cannot seem to relate to each other beyond type, whether that type is victim and predator or Naughty School Girl and Teacher.

Making it real, making both these characters real enough for the audience to truly care what happens to them, that is the burden that theater artists must bare. Any theater company taking on Blackbird has to battle against the romantic porn fantasy that Harrower sets up at the beginning.

The real pornography of Harrower’s play, however, is not the sex that almost happens between Ray and Una or the sex they had long ago. It’s their wallowing in shame, regret and stifled yearning—that’s the real spectacle put up for our enjoyment. Since few realistic insights about child abuse or under-aged sex can be found here, you’ll excuse me if I turn to the more pleasurable entertainments of “Debbie Does Dallas”.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Blackbird features Guild company members Cassandra Cushman and David Schaplowsky, along with Marissa Meo, and is directed by Artistic Director Daniel Scott. Performances will be at 8pm, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, August 16-18 and 23-25 at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield, Chicago, IL (map). Tickets are $15 and $10 for industry; reservations may be made by calling (312) 613-8885 or emailing guildtheaterprods@gmail.com. Tickets may also be purchased at the door with cash only. The box office will open at 7:30 on the days of the performance.

Chris Jones announces 10 best plays of 2009

The Tribune’s Chris Jones announces Top 10 Plays of 2009

For the complete description, explanations and reviews of these plays (and others), be sure to visit Chris Jones’ excellent blog: The Theater Loop


1. The Arabian Nights by Mary ZimmermanLookingglass Theatre  (our review)

 

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2. The History Boys by Nicholas HytnerTimeline Theatre 

 

3. The Overwhelming by J.T. RogersNext Theatre 

4. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer DiazVictory Gardens (our review)

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5. Blackbird by David HarrowerVictory Gardens (our review)

 

6. Cabaret by Kander and EbbDrury Lane Oakbrook (our review)

 

7. The Mystery of Irma Vep by Sean GraneyCourt Theatre (our review)

 

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8. Graceland by Ellen FaireyProfiles Theatre (our review)

 

9. Oh Coward!devised by Roderick CookWriters’ Theatre (our review)

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10. Stud Terkel’s Not WorkingSecond City e.t.c.

 

Chris Jones’ list of 10 shows that “should have made the list”

Desire Under the ElmsGoodman Theatre

Little Foxes Shattered Globe Theatre 

Miss SaigonDrury Lane Oakbrook

Old Glory Writers’ Theatre

Our Lady of the Underpass Teatro Vista Theatre

Rock ‘n’ RollGoodman Theatre

Top Dog/Underdog American Theater Company and Congo Square Theatre

 Twelfth NightChicago Shakespeare Theatre 

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Marriott Theatre