Monday, December 6, 2010

Off the Chart

Naomi Wallace (left) is a poet who doesn't know it. Actually, she knows it all right - she used to be a poet (and maybe a fine one, I haven't read her).

But Wallace decided she'd rather be a playwright, and has become best known for several eloquently wrought pieces of lefty agitprop. Nothing wrong with lefty agitprop, I suppose - and the more eloquently wrought the better! Still, I think Wallace must be a better poet than she is a playwright. I'm only judging from The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East (at the Central Square Theater through December 19) and her one "hit," One Flea Spare, but since both are poetically complex but dramatically inert, I have a hunch that's her trademark. And then there's the fact that she has won the Susan Blackburn Prize (twice!) and an Obie, and is also a MacArthur Fellow - a trifecta that all but guarantees her work is built for the page, not the stage.

Indeed, as you watch The Fever Chart, you can almost see a page floating in front of you, with all kinds of glyphs and arrows connecting symbols and metaphors and parallels to one another. It's a dense, lovely piece of work; its loveliness is dense, and its density is lovely. And to be honest, it's also deadly dull. Because its structure is so relentlessly pre-determined, and because it lacks any sense of conflict whatsoever. (Watching it is like watching someone stitch a quilt.) You may have heard that The Fever Chart is set in the Middle East. And yet, incredibly, it lacks a sense of conflict. Naomi Wallace may be the first writer in history to pull that one off.

So she certainly deserves some kind of prize! And at any rate, The Fever Chart has set off a few conflicts among those who've seen it - it's unabashedly anti-Israel, and anti-American (or at least anti-American Middle East policy). Which is fine by me - I'm not at all opposed to Israel's existence in the mystical sense the way Wallace seems to be (in fact I think Israel's existence is justified), but then I think everything with this playwright is a bit mystical, and as Hub Review readers know, I'm opposed to the intensifying Israeli subjection of the Palestinians, and worry that there's more truth in that "Israeli apartheid" accusation than most American Jews would like to admit.

Still, there is a question of how you legitimately state such political positions on the stage, and frankly, I'm not sure intricately woozy metaphor fills the bill. The three vignettes that comprise The Fever Chart (the name refs one of the "Four Quartets" by T. S. Eliot, another poet who thought he was a playwright) are all dream plays (of different types) in which two grieving members of various "sides" in various Middle East conflicts discover haunting, cosmic connections between each other (in the last play, we ourselves, the American audience, serve as half of such a couple - we just don't get any lines). The atmosphere of these scenes is haunted and distant, even though the poignance of the situations is sometimes piercing; Wallace clearly wants to invest her tragedies with something of the floating, meditative atmosphere of Eliot's poem. But while Samuel Beckett probably could have pulled that off, Wallace really can't. The problem is that each play's revelations don't take place via dramatic action (and even Beckett crawls forward via dramatic action); instead, they occur by pronouncement, and we do get the impression, I'm afraid, that we're supposed to ooh and ahhh over the beauty of each new development - in a creative-writing-class kind of way - as Wallace's overall karmic design sloowly comes clear.

And I can see how this could piss supporters of Israel off, frankly. It's one thing to lose an argument; it's another thing entirely to have a playwright coo, as Wallace does in the centerpiece of her trilogy, that Israel can only breathe with Arab lungs, and is doomed to die, anyhow - because, hey, that's just how her dream-play rolls. You can feel moving behind her gentle complexity a certain amount of calm vengefulness at such  moments - and you wonder, since so many people have despaired of finding a moral center in the competing tragedies of the Middle East, how it is Wallace can be so very sure of her own compass regarding same.

You also wonder why she doesn't just go ahead and write a long-form poem, or maybe an opinion piece or an essay, instead of a play. Because Wallace has to constantly violate the artistic rules we expect of a "drama" - even a dream play - to work up her quilt of associations and metaphors. Often characters turn out to be ghosts, or suddenly begin babbling non sequiturs, just so Wallace can weave a symbol or theme she likes back into the "action," such as it is. In that creative writing class, you'd call this kind of thing "cheating." But apparently allowances can be made when critics find a playwright's politics pleasing.

Although to be honest, sometimes I too was taken with the beauty of Wallace's writing. She's a damn good lefty poet, you betcha. And certainly she's getting a strong production from Underground Railway at the Central Square Theater (see YouTube above). Elegantly staged in the round by director Elena Araoz, on Susan Zeeman Roger's spare but evocative set, the production is beautifully rendered, and even manages to put the script over, here and there. (The second play in particular has stretches of dialogue that operate as actual dialogue.) The acting across the board is quite fine - from a diverse cast that includes Arabs, Jews, and noninterested parties, it's worth noting - with particularly strong turns from local stalwart Ken Baltin as well as luminous New Yorkers Najla Said (yes, daughter of THAT Said) and Maria Silverman. The real find of the production, however, is recent BU grad Harry Hobbs, who brings a goofy sexiness and rangy sense of comedy to everything he does; let's hope roles can be found to keep him local.

I also note with approval the impressive series of talkbacks and conversations scheduled around the production, reflecting a refreshing sense of honest political engagement on the part of Underground Railway Theater. Hear, hear to that!  If only the same sense of honest political engagement was reflected in the play at hand.

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