Wednesday, April 17, 2013

White zombies, and the best new play so far this year, at Trinity Rep

Rebecca Gibel and Darien Battle get their Walking Dead groove on. Production photos: Mark Turek.

White terror.

Let's admit it, that's what stalks us these days.

It's the ghost haunting the attack on the Boston Marathon (surely foreign terrorists would have claimed credit by now).  It's what shadows the Newtown tragedy, and most every other massacre on the network news (and there's almost one a week now, isn't there).

White men with assault rifles.  White men with bombs.  White men with gavels.

It's getting scary.  (Almost as scary as it has always been for black folks.)

Hence the re-purposing of the zombie to this new reality.  The undead once stumbled through exotic, racist dreamscapes (sometimes lushly-rendered ones).  But in 1968 George Romero neatly flipped the zombie brand with his (still potent) Night of the Living Dead, a tale of hungry white Republicans chowing down on a lone African-American hero.  A decade later, Romero went himself one better, sending his white zombies staggering to the mall - but slowly the rejuvenated genre lost its political edge, to either fresh paranoid targets (AIDS, etc.) or pure gross-out potential.

Obama changed all that, however, and brought the Romero formula back center-stage.  Suddenly America was confronted by a black man as its only real statesman of stature; intelligent, calm, responsible - basically Atticus Finch reborn - he drove racists crazy (indeed, just today an anonymous letter containing poison was sent to the President). And suddenly white zombies were everywhere. Zombie movies, zombie marches - even a zombie cable series! All at once, the walking dead were at the heart of the millennial zeitgeist.

And now, after many scrappy fringe efforts, we have our first "serious" play channeling all this undead energy in Jackie Sibblies Drury's Social Creatures, through this weekend only at Trinity Rep.  And to my mind, it's well worth a trip to Providence.  You could argue (as some have) that Drury's gorefest is too indebted to genre conventions: a wary band of survivors has holed up in (yes) the actual Trinity Rep, in actual real-life Providence, as some inexplicable plague rages outside.  They're basically all stereotypes (aging hippie, uptight yuppie, crotchety old coot), and they're inevitably overwhelmed by predictable threats from without and within.

Jackie Sibblies Drury
But if you made that argument, you'd be missing the point. For there's a fresh, unsettling edge to Drury's script that lingers with you - and visibly disturbed the audience on the night I saw it in a way you rarely see audiences troubled anymore.  In short, while Ms. Drury's play may be formulaic, this is at least partly intentional - and at any rate, you can sense through its lens that she's the real thing: a fresh theatrical voice already far stronger than most of the millennial brat pack.

Perhaps part of her punch comes from her sneaky, insinuating technique: her ragged little band apart, for instance, has unconsciously chosen new, white-bread sobriquets (Mrs. Smith, Mr. Williams) for their new social roles; they long for white normalcy, and when an African-American stumbles into their enclave, they immediately dub him "Mr. Brown" - "I know what you're thinking, but it's just so easy to remember!" they explain. Drury also has an eye for more deeply embedded detail: all the squirrels and rabbits have vanished, for instance (and even the trees are slowly dying), but the rats are doing just fine, thank you very much - which is why her characters panic whenever they see a member of the rat race (perhaps they're the ones carrying the plague).

But what exactly is that unnamed scourge? It's here that Social Creatures nibbles at the audience's assumptions.  Unlike The Walking Dead, or even George Romero, Drury openly treats her illness as metaphor; there's no mutated virus responsible, no bug from another world.  What happened, as the traumatized Mr. Brown explains, is that one day in a department store, "Some white lady couldn't get the dress she wanted in the right size, and suddenly she just ripped the salesgirl's face off."  Then another lady in the store went just as crazy, realizing that "now she could do whatever she wanted."

And so the plague began.  It was all about retail.

It's a clever gambit, one that neatly links the racist critique of Romero to the political chic of so many young millennials; this is a libertarian nightmare, one in which old moral and religious constraints have been shed, and white people have gone mad as a result.  For after all, what is the zombie but a consumer? Stumbling around mindlessly in the free market of human flesh, forever hungry for more "content," zombies don't merely reflect racism but also the market-driven rapacity of the new world (and Internet) order. (Indeed, there's even a dark hint here that official racism once constrained, rather than enabled, our basest instincts.)

Alexander Platt discovers the worst in Social Creatures.
Thus you slowly get a sense of the playwright's subtle game: she wants to reproduce the conventions of The Walking Dead while simultaneously subverting them.  And so she gives the audience quite a good time, serving up generous helpings of black comedy with some effective grindhouse chills, before whispering her true theme to us sotto voce.

Still, the play's not perfect.  Drury seems more assured in her portraits of women than men, so sometimes there's an air of Fried-Green-Tomatoes cliché to her action.  But at the same time she seems a little unsure of what to make of, or do with, her most intriguing character, the power-yuppie Mrs. Jones (a poignantly determined D'Arcy Dersham) who desperately, if tyrannically, tries to keep her tribe together against all odds (she sadly tells her self-absorbed husband, "I always thought you would be braver"). The other polestar of the play, damaged emo-waif Mrs. Smith (a perversely effective Rebecca Gibel) is likewise a bit blurry, hinting at far more than is ever theatrically realized; is her decline due to drugs?  Trauma? Mental illness? We're never sure, although it's highly amusing that it's she who succumbs to the zombie bug first (it's like watching Taylor Swift go cannibal). I should also add that the onstage violence isn't always convincing - even if the ensuing geysers of hemoglobin usually are.

But the acting at Trinity generally carries us over these quibbles, and to be honest, the entire ensemble, under the assured hand of artistic director Curt Columbus (who commissioned the script), is remarkably robust: Alexander Platt (at right, last seen in Ch'inglish at the Lyric) nails his nihilistic, suburban middle manager, and there's more compelling, witty work from Nance Williamson, Janice Duclos, Timothy Crowe, and the terrified Darien Battle.

Of course in the end, what most people may bring away from Social Creatures is Drury's daring with the gory tropes of the grindhouse (and be warned, the play includes a cannibal battle royale complete with squirting jugulars). But what stuck with me was its pathos - not the pathos of the zombie apocalypse, but the pathos of the refugees' pitiful attempts at being, well, "social creatures." In their spare time, they record long lists of groups they once were a part of; and tellingly, Eugene Lee's battered set is held together by nothing but duct tape. But is duct tape enough to keep the twin terrors of racism and libertarianism at bay?  Ms. Drury poses the question cleverly, but doesn't offer any answers.

No comments:

Post a Comment