Monday, November 18, 2013

Chuckling at charity with Caryl Churchill

Meredith Stypinski goes for it as Selby. Photo: Chris McKenzie
I admit Caryl Churchill's The After-Dinner Joke sometimes feels like merely a witty aside to the rest of her oeuvre. Actually, make that many witty asides, as this montage of sketches skewering corporate charity never stays focused on any one of the ironies surrounding its subject for very long.

Joke doesn't even stay in a single format for very long - it began life as a BBC broadcast in the seventies, so it hops around in the anything-goes, short-form-video spirit of Monty Python. Indeed, Churchill sometimes all but ignores her seeming "story" (a mash-up of Candide and Major Barbara in which an idealistic capitalist acolyte, "Selby," is chosen to head up her company's charity operation) to focus on all manner of talking heads, celebrities, news events, commercials, and other dramatic one-liners. So in Joke, the joke is really on narrative structure; but at least you're usually only a few minutes away from Churchill's next punchline.

Of course transplanting all these varied gambits to the stage is no easy task - and to be frank, raises all sorts of practical questions during performance (particularly one essayed by only five actors, even if aided by videos and projections).  But Meg Taintor's wry Whistler in the Dark production (at the Charlestown Working Theater through this weekend) at least keeps us smiling, even when we're slightly confused. And the Whistlers themselves approach every presentational challenge with calm, confident élan (as well as a brace of convincing accents worked up with local elocution whiz Liz Hayes). They always seem to know what they're doing, so we pretty much go along, piecing things together on the fly.

This is a small price to pay, I'd argue, for exposure to a rarely-seen Churchill script (which we'll never see on American television) as well as her central idea - that post-modern "charity" is so entwined with the politics of capitalism that in a way it doesn't even exist as a separate concept. After all, corporations only field charities as a form of self-enhancement - and of course consumers only give to them for the same reason (as one jaded consultant explains, "We're still in the business of making money!"). But it takes the earnestly flat-footed Selby a while to catch on to the game - at first she proposes appeals showing disaster victims with the tagline, "This is YOUR fault!"  But she eventually learns to deep-six the guilt and focus on the warm-and-fuzzies that come from giving (as long as you're not supporting anything "political," that is).  And so her efforts lift off into the upper echelons of beaming self-regard, à la the "We Are the World" benefit single of the 80's, which Taintor includes in Churchill's pastiche with po-faced bemusement.

Once Selby has cash in hand, however, she only encounters new obstacles to actually doing good in the Third World (or any world); corrupt governments, benighted aid agencies, even local guerrillas  stand in her way.  Indeed, by the end of her journey toward ironic enlightenment, she has begun to wonder whether she might have done better to simply hand her donations over to the local terrorists, who at least might have cleared out the ruling class.

Or would that only set up the premise of another Churchill satire?  It's an open question - which hardly obscures the playwright's main point, which is that every aspect of charity (who deserves it, who funds it, who eventually delivers it) is inherently political. That's hardly news, I know, but given the political vacuum in the American theatre today, it's bracing just to hear it said again, and with such deadpan wit.

Still, perhaps the Whistlers concentrate a bit too much on that wit - their Selby, the committed, capable Meredith Stypinski, doesn't quite anchor the antics around her with a strong enough emotional throughline.  (To be fair, Churchill only gives her a thread, not a throughline, but Stypinski still needs to cut through all the clutter with a compelling arc.)  The rest of the cast, leaping from accent to accent, and even gender to gender, proves effective in most (if not quite all) of their roles.  I felt Lorne Nogueira's sphinx-like CEO and Melissa Barker's beaming herpetologist (who loves watching snakes swallow their prey - are you listening, Selby?) made the best impressions, but that may be simply because those roles are the most memorable; fringe mainstay Bob Mussett and charismatic newcomer Joseph D. Freeman were likewise endlessly energetic and resourceful, and both scored as a bristling PR rep and a dotty "knitted hat lady," respectively.  If the final results of their efforts seem a little lightweight - well, the fault may lie in their script, and not themselves.

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