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.

REVIEW: Whack! (Gorilla Tango)

“Whack!” needs work to get its licks in

 

Gorilla Tango Theatre presents:

Whack! The Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan Story

written and directed by Kelly Williams
thru February 25th (more info)

review by Paige Listerud

Just what is it with our culture’s renewed fascination about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan? The current musical production on at Gorilla Tango Theatre is just the tip of the iceberg. A rock opera about their infamous 1994 Olympic rivalry premiered in Portland in 2008 and another production is scheduled for this year in Los Angeles; in 2008, then-candidate Obama told the press he would not “pull a Tonya Harding” on Hilary Clinton in the run up to the Democratic Convention; and the phrase quickly became used by Dem insiders to forecast Hilary’s options pursuing the presidential nomination.

Who would have guessed the revival of a 15 year-old, nearly forgotten struggle for Olympic gold?

On the other hand, as the opening number, “Bitches On Ice,” would suggest, there’s a certain eternal appeal to dueling women in dainty outfits. The audience wants to see a catfight between two aspiring ice princesses precisely because they’re suppose to be polite little ladies. Writer and director Kelly Williams further exploits the (presumed) class differences between Nancy and Tonya in her new show, Whack! The Tony Harding & Nancy Kerrigan Story, a Karaoke Musicalabout which much could be deconstructed.

But first, the lyricists for Whack! are some very clever people. In fact, the wittiness in the songs far outshines the dialogue, especially at the start. If there’s a rewrite in this show’s future, let it sharpen up spoken lines and leave jaunty works like “Majorsubcutaneousepiduralhematoma” well enough alone. Of course, it helps that they’ve subversively set the lyrics to the Disney movie music canon, so that shiny, happy crowd-pleasers like “Be My Guest” get transformed to “I Love Breasts”—an easy improvement over the original.

It’s the run-up to the Lillehammer Olympics. According to Whack!’s storyline, Nancy Kerrigan (Leslie Nesbitt) is nothing other than an evil skating genius, planning to use her Olympic gold victory to establish (or is that re-establish?) WASP dominance. “Mother, how would you feel if all of Asia was trying to ruin my life?” Nancy says, referring to Michele Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Oksana Baiul. Never mind that two of the above are Asian-American competitors. She’s not about to let white trash Tonya Harding (Cassandra Cushman) keep her from total white upper middle class victory. For her part, Tonya is just striving to lift herself out of the depths of her trailer park existence.

Both characters would be nothing without their mothers–Nancy’s Blind Mom, played hilariously by Carry Bain, and Tonya’s Drunk Momma (Natalie Kossar ) form the perfect pair of bookends to their emotionally deformed daughters. Kossar takes some time to warm up to her role, but once there she slays with lines like, “Make Momma a pizza,” and “Shh! You’ll scare the whiskey away.”

The same could be said of the rest of the cast, which takes some time to get there, too. One thing about rowdy, schlock musical comedies: not beginning with high energy is death to the production. Hopefully, that flaw will be rectified in the course of the run, because once fired up, the show is much funnier. Spiro Zafiropoulos, as Tonya’s ex-husband-live-in-boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, shows the kind of professional steadiness that the rest of the conspiracy against Nancy could learn from. But he can’t bring the plot to wicked fulfillment all by himself.

As for Nesbit and Cushman, each takes the stage well alone, whether envisioning world domination or plaintively wishing to get out from under a drunken parent’s domination. But once onstage together, the sparks don’t fly equal to expectations that have been built up in the audience. Since this is a musical comedy, not a history lesson, it’s a little astonishing that more liberties aren’t taken with their exchanges. In other words, go wild, ladies. This is what we’ve paid our tickets for.

As for the class differences that Williams expounds on and exploits between Tonya and Nancy, I hope that by now most people are aware that the real Nancy Kerrigan comes from an equally blue-collar background. It’s a different tale to tell, two blue-collar girls both engaging in an aspirational struggle–rather than setting up yet another “upper class vs. blue collar” dynamic. Perhaps it all depends on where you want to get your comedy.

Rating: ★½