REVIEW: Effie (The Neapolitans)

When ‘Gossip Girl’ meets Orwell’s 1984

effie-poster

 
The Neapolitans present
 
Effie
 
by Cory Tamler
directed by Brea Hayes
at EP Theater, 1820 S. Halsted (map)
thru May 9th  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

So many things go wrong with The Neapolitans’ production of Effie. Written by Cory Tamler and directed by Brea Hayes, they attempt a modern retelling of EuripidesIphigenia, wherein Agamemnon is President of the United States, Clytemnestra, or Clyta (Anna Carini) is First Lady, Achillles (Andrew Burden Swanson) is their daughter’s fiancé, and Iphigenia, or Effie (Hilary Williams), is the sacrificial victim. On stage at EP Theatre, it’s a premise we are all meant to take seriously—no comedy, satire or irony here. The play is meant to have modern political and social import because, in this dystopian fantasy of America, the bombings of the Twin Towers on 9/11 were not the end. Instead, in Effie, terrorists have hit city after city, reducing America to an unstable wreck of a security-compromised nation.

effie-poster How like Iraq. A couple of years ago, I read an essay by an Iraqi journalist about the trials and tribulations of trying to drive to work in the morning in Baghdad. Just getting from point A to point B meant driving through a gauntlet of checkpoints at which terrorist attacks could take place at any moment. In fact, being stopped at a checkpoint made one more vulnerable to attack. He wrote of his daily experience that the moment of attack would be unknown, the type of attack was unknown, the group behind the attack was unknown, and the reasons for the attack were unknown.

The stiff and drawn-out exposition at the beginning of Effie attempts, but fails, to establish the tone of danger and uncertainty in the state of the nation. Plus, such striking similarities between this play’s dystopian USA and recent daily life in Iraq go completely unacknowledged, leaving it utterly untapped for dramatic resonance.

On with the premise: as a last ditch effort to save America from the terrorists, Agamemnon calls on his daughter to become the first suicide bomber—a lovely symbolic gesture that the government hopes will inspire other Americans, perhaps especially young Americans, to become suicide bombers. Near the end of the play, crowds gather to urge Effie on to her glorious, patriotic fate. In the end, just as in Euripides’ classic, Effie willingly submits herself with some protestation, some tears, but not too much ado.

This story has been told many times before and in much better ways. In fact, this version makes me tremble in terror—not that our country could end up like this—but that the playwright and the producers themselves seem so blindly obsessed with romancing the jihad – Christian style. Without irony it asks what would get people to commit the ultimate sacrifice for their country—as if there aren’t Americans already sacrificing for their country now. Well, mostly poor and working class Americans are, but let’s come back to that later.

This play depicts NO dissent, raised in any coherent or consistent manner, against the suicide bomber notion. NO characters provide decent counterpoint as to whether suicide bombing is needed. More importantly, no character asks whether suicide bombing will actually stop terrorist attack. NOTHING politically aware or militarily feasible penetrates the bubble around this tawdry melodrama about an elite family. (I mean, the military has developed drones for attack. Why turn to live suicide bombers?) Yet the audience is called upon to take their melodrama and its political possibilities seriously. Finally, the work is rife with all the self-absorption of “Gossip Girl” — again without a scintilla of irony or a hint of fun.

Tragically, the Neapolitans are in way over their heads with this retelling—but are they even aware how far and how deeply they have stepped in it? At one point, Achilles, Effie’s fiancé, lectures her on the value of knowing history. Then he proceeds to say that nothing happened during the Cold War, it was all a stalemate. There is no counterpoint to this statement; again, nothing indicates that the audience should take it ironically. Everything points to giving Achilles’ dialogue credibility.

Really? Nothing happened during the Cold War? A little thing called Vietnam happened during the Cold War–it happened because of the Cold War. Furthermore, America’s active participation with troops in Vietnam began with a little thing called the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. On August 4, 1964, President Johnson went before the American people and pronounced that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had twice fired on an American destroyer in an unprovoked attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was a lie. It was a lie that the American media then ran with. It was a lie that started Vietnam for real for Americans and ended up sacrificing 50,000 American lives–most of them averaging 18 years of age.

Young people are always being asked to sacrifice their lives by older people who start and maintain wars–conventional wars or the War On Terror. It’s just that privileged young people usually get exempted from having to make that sacrifice. Is that what makes Effie’s sacrifice special?–that she’s a rich, privileged, sheltered and self-absorbed teenager being called to a sacrifice that’s de rigueur for poor and working class kids during times of war? If Effie’s being called to sacrifice, is it because all the drones have failed and all the poor and working class kids have already died in the war and now the country must use her to rally the youth of the upper classes–if they haven’t escaped to Canada already?

Have The Neapolitans really thought this thing through?

Let us kindly rename this play a work in progress, not a “world premiere,” as touted in the press release. If there is one scene worth salvaging for further development, it’s the one in which Effie realizes, “I don’t get to be a person . . . I’m such a pawn, I might as well be made of plastic.” That moment is golden.

Hilary Williams pulls out the stops to play Effie sympathetically, without denying her character’s total self-absorption. Anna Carini makes one tough, stylish, dangerous, and maternally flawed Clytemnestra. The Chorus (Brandon Thompson and Danielle Maihoffer) takes a while to warm up. Awkward exposition provides many speed bumps for them through the beginning of the play. But the cleverness of their presence in the piece eventually reveals itself; their final sections are also worth saving. As Achilles, Swanson is given the burden of pronouncing that ridiculous dialogue about knowing your history. The scene between Achilles and Clyta also bogs down under maudlin melodramatic weight. It is truly difficult to tell if the fault is in the dialogue or the acting.

Stefin Stebert’s production design provides some style in costuming and a decidedly stylish upper class apartment for the set. Alas, good style cannot save Effie in its current incarnation.

What if peace could be guaranteed by the sacrifice of one human life? What if the life were yours?” Such is the statement printed in bold graphics on the cover of the play’s program. I think The Neapolitans are being deeply sincere in asking that question.

Well, if peace really and truly can be guaranteed by the sacrifice of one human life—as The Neapolitans suggest it can–then that life is not going to be mine. If an unaware, apolitical, 16-year-old girl from a twisted political family will take my place, so much the better. If she is so plastic, she allows herself to be led to the slaughter even when the alternative lies right at her elbow, well then bon voyage. If she is so ignorant of history, she can’t even detect the ignorance of her fiancé while he lectures her about being ignorant of history, then perhaps she was too sheltered or stupid to survive in this world anyway. Daddy is sacrificing you; Mom is sleeping with your boyfriend; and your pontificating boyfriend has been fucking you and your mother at the same time. Maybe it is time to die.

That death may indeed be tragic, but you can’t make me care about the life that is being sacrificed. Not when real people’s lives are being sacrificed to the two wars we are currently in and with an economic crisis brought on our heads by financial elites playing with our future.

 
 
Rating:  ★½
 
 

 

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Review: Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal”

Going On a Tear With Bertolt Brecht

 

EP Theater presents:

Baal
by Bertolt Brecht
directed by A.J. Ware and Hunter Kennedy
through October 3rd (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

One thing you can say about EP Theater’s production of Baalthey do nothing by halves. They flounder and flop like a fish out of water in the first act, only to snap into riveting concentration and power with the second.

Written in 1918, when Bertolt Brecht was twenty years young, snapping a whip against his thigh as he accosted women in the streets, Baal clearly shows Decadent and Aesthetic movement influences—the dark side of 19th century Romanticism. Its action is raw and scandalous; its language is thickly poetic – so thickly poetic that character motives can be obscured. So if the actor hasn’t made clear choices about what the words mean, there’s no way the audience will ever deduce it. It’s a production you can both love and hate, kind of like the eponymous character himself.

But, in the final analysis, what’s not to love about two bad-boy artists tearing through women, booze, money, towns, and finally each other–violating every convention, assaulting morality to the last breath? It’s been quite while since I’ve witnessed dramatic characters with this much absolute thinking and vehement passion. That’s what makes it so groovy. The addition of The Loneliest Monk, a Chicago rock-art duo, playing a live original score, creates the perfect unifying and satisfying bohemian touch.

What’s not so groovy is the monstrously amateurish first act. “We tweaked and tweaked and tweaked the writing to get it to the point it is now,” says Executive Director, Jason Ewers. “There were scene sections we just didn’t know what to do with. But what attracted us to this early Brecht work was just how raw it was.”

Perhaps then, that obnoxious term, work-in-progress, still applies here. The actors still have to gain better mastery of Brecht’s language. Some actors do not have the heft and projection to deliver it, while others attempt to build dramatic tension by shouting lines. The ensemble cast is cohesive and meaningfully responsive to each other, but work on clarifying and personalizing the subtext to all that heavy-duty poetry remains the bulk of unfinished work for the first act.

Thank goodness the difference between first and second acts is like night and day. Thank goodness A. J. Ware and Hunter Kennedy’s direction brings on full-bore pansexuality, as well as the physical and emotional devastations of amoral excess. Baal and Ekart are a fabulously doomed couple, even if Baal is the more fabulously doomed of the two.

Finally, it needs some nudity. Seriously. That’s not a prurient suggestion. Okay, it is. But is it in keeping with the spirit of Decadence.

One can shake ones’ head in astonishment at the way this particular show swings from depths to great heights, but no one can deny EP Theater’s ability to take risks. Its capacity for daring and risk wins it respect, even with this significantly flawed and unfinished production.

Rating: ««