Sunday, March 8, 2009

The wrong way of looking at Blackbird?

Bates Wilder and Marianna Bassham spread their broken wings.

In case you haven't noticed, there's been a little critical controversy over the current SpeakEasy production of David Harrower's Blackbird. The aging critical demi-monde has been shocked that this nasty little opus won the Olivier Award (Britain's answer to the Tony) over boomer porn like Frost/Nixon and Rock'n'Roll (whether it should have beaten The Seafarer is, I admit, a different question). The Globe's Louise Kennedy even went so far as to declare of the play, "There. Is. Nothing. There." (Essentially she admitted this bird had flown right over her head.) Meanwhile, Herald punkette Jenna Scherer hailed it as a "gut-punch" of a play that "peered into the emotional abyss," and insisted, "If you haven’t got a free evening, make one. And if you haven’t got a thick skin, grow one. Just make sure you see it."

Now I like peering into the emotional abyss as much as the next guy, but frankly, my problem with Blackbird was . . . that it wasn't nasty enough. Not enough of a gut-punch. Not "dark" enough.

But to explain why, I'm going to have to ignore SpeakEasy's request (which ham-strung some other reviewers) that critics not reveal any of the drama's "twists." I feel no compunction about doing so, because a) it's late in the run, b) it's an open secret that the play is about a past pedophilic encounter between its two leads, and c) it was a bad idea in the first place to market the piece as a whodunit (it's more of a whydunit). And to answer Kennedy's complaint straight away: Yes, Louise. There's. Something. There. But has SpeakEasy actually managed to catch the play's black lightning in a bottle? I hate to say it, because the cast goes for broke, and it's great to see this company stretch so far from its usual diet of gay uplift, but I'm afraid the answer is: not quite. And therefore, to be fair to Kennedy, it can be a little hard at times to see what all the fuss has been about.

Not that everyone doesn't seem to be trying as hard as they can to nail the play's bleak premise regarding love (which Nabokov approached from a very different angle in Lolita). The set - a trash-strewn break room in some nameless corporate hive - is harshly lit and angular; it screams seriousness. The actors - the talented Marianna Bassham and Bates Wilder - are committed and passionately detailed in their performances. And director David R. Gammons seems to understand that the central concern of the play is why, exactly, twenty-something Una has at last tracked down Ray, the man who had sex with her when she was twelve.

Yes, twelve - intriguingly, the same age as Nabokov's "nymphet;" an age when no Roman-Polanski-like excuses can have any purchase (if they ever can). But where Nabokov gave us a supremely self-deluded perpetrator, we sense Harrower has devised instead a self-deluded victim - or at least, we begin to wonder whether Una understands herself why precisely she is confronting Ray (particularly as he's already been convicted of the crime and done time). Indeed, not only her motives but her very identity begins to seem mysterious, like those of the blurry co-workers who wander past the breakroom's frosted-glass window. But the problem is Gammons and his cast don't seem able to bring into focus any possible answer to this question, even though Bassham and Wilder thrash things out with abandon, and we begin to realize the playwright is asking us to entertain the idea that Una could actually still be in love with her abuser.

Now this is something of a cultural hand grenade; it feels like the kind of thing only a male playwright could dream up: the ultimate perp's pipe dream. Still, that's what Harrower wrote, and what the SpeakEasy team has taken on. You get the impression they see the Gordian knot of Una and Ray's "relationship" as some sort of weird variant of the cliché that we're all the walking wounded, seeking out those who damage us, that "love hurts," etc. And maybe it is. But what Harrower intends to occur over the course of his play - that is, Una's slow regression into something like the emotional state of her twelve-year-old self - doesn't occur at SpeakEasy, and in fact isn't even attempted; instead the production seems to want to "keep us guessing" long after this is an artistic option. Because without a specific (if perverse) emotional context, all the Sturm und Drang begins to feel a bit generic. Don't get me wrong, Marianna Bassham (above left) is often wrenching and fearless, and all but strips herself naked emotionally, but it's still an adult nakedness that she gives us, which doesn't really make any sense. Una's behavior is only intelligible as a kind of trapped re-enactment of the pain of her prepubescent experience; Harrower intends to conjure her longing for her initial violation - as well as, of course, Ray's eventual attraction (once again) to her vulnerability; the playwright is after a squirm-inducing return to the scene of the crime. Which explains his very-creepy final twist (no, I won't reveal it here, except to say it's designed to remind us that Ray is indeed a monster, and insinuate that Una is just as bad).

So - can it be a satisfying theatrical experience examining first-hand such emotional cripples? Well, great theatre has been made in the past from equally dark materials. But said theatre has always had to go the distance. And I'm afraid SpeakEasy, as it has sometimes done before, has dodged the full, disturbing impact of the edgy piece it has decided to produce. I say this while still admiring the commitment of actors Wilder and Bassham, and the uncompromising control of the production design. I'm probably only disappointed in director David R. Gammons, who by now has made a small career out of producing horrifying plays (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Duchess of Malfi, and now this) which he then drains of much of their horror. And indeed, sans its central sick emotional arc, Blackbird is often slightly boring rather than shocking - while the inclusion of the famous Beatles song as a coda makes you wonder for a moment whether the director ever really understood what this piece was about.

Oh, well. Another fearless glimpse into the abyss that doesn't quite come off. Sigh. Just don't tell Jenna Scherer.

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