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Theatre Review: Speak No Evil at the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo, NY

Speak No Evil-100dpiTry not to make someone else’s world crappy, goes the main theme of Sonya Sobieski’s Speak No Evil.

Explored through the lens of Tricia (Emily Yancey) and Steve’s (J oey Bucheker) relationship – which has just ended – the piece is a through-the-looking-glass/absurdist farce about an institute which aims to eliminate the possibility of hurting the feelings of others. From microchip implants to its very own martyr (David C. Mitchell as Silent Guy, who so wants to stop causing offense that he’s stopped talking entirely), the Institute of Right Things to Say feels like it exists like a surreal setting from mid-century science fiction, complete with call-outs to Ray Bradbury.

While Tricia and Steve provide a pat through-line, the evening’s most engaging moments often take place between other members of the ensemble, most of whom play at least three characters. From Bethany Sparacio’s dead-on, hilarious caricature of a secretary or her portrayal of a hooker-slash-reiki-healer, to Joyce Stilson’s visitor to the institute and her aggressive nastiness towards both another visitor to the Institute and Silent Guy himself, to James Cichocki’s turn as the kind of co-worker everybody has and everybody wants to slap, the supporting cast bring necessary depth and color to the stage. The pacing, which director Neal Radice mentioned was altered somewhat by omitting the lowering and raising of lights between each scene, is snappy and quick – all the more impressive considering that one member of the original cast had to drop out just days before the show opened. On the whole, the ensemble helps elevate the piece beyond the text.

According to Sobieski, inspiration for the play came during a silent writer’s retreat/residency and its message is primarily aimed at personal interactions, with any political readings being unintentional (though she acknowledged the idea of the personal as political). Given this, it’s astounding how clearly the text seems to want to comment on society’s current obsession with political correctness, and to some degree this made it seem confused at times; every time one tried to determine whether the message was that society is or isn’t overdoing it on the whole “political correctness thing” the water got muddy and it felt as though something was missing. It’s not that a playwright necessarily needs to lay out clear, black-and-white points of view (I’d argue that it’s generally more effective if they don’t), but there are junctures in the story where you want it to go down this road: for example, during Tricia’s discussion with her boss (Melissa Leventhal), she comments on what she perceives as the ideals of the program. Leventhal seems to (nonverbally) communicate that the boss may know something Tricia doesn’t. Given how straightforward and direct much of the rest of the play is (even as it talks about avoiding saying hurtful things), the lack of a more elucidating response is somewhat frustrating.

Speak No Evil deals with both very concrete and very conceptual opposites, and at times I felt as if we were only wandering in the lighter end of the play’s potential emotional range. If you’re going to have an underground speakeasy in protest of the Institute of Right Things to Say, and it’s selling itself on the basis of being a place where anything – no matter how raunchy, no matter how cruel – can be said, then limiting the extreme language to a few “fucks” and other run-of-the-mill insults falls short of expectations. I expected darkness on the order of a Michael Richards outburst from the raunchy ventriloquist’s dummy, but the insults never reached a point where I believed they’d have the effect they’re shown to have here. In a politicized reading of the piece, you could argue that an anti-P.C. viewpoint might be well-served by a club where the most offensive thing anyone says is “fuck”, but the play didn’t seem to be attempting to make that argument. Truly shocking the audience in the lead-up to a tragic on-stage event might have made for both a higher surge of energy in the lead-up and a bigger reaction for the event itself. That said, some of the dialogue simply sparkled – a line about a worm on a sidewalk after rainfall (“It didn’t want to drown, but the only place it had to go was just as bad” or a discussion of prehistoric humans who lacked language (“Don’t eavesdrop with your eyes”).

With its introspective vantage point and prioritization of words from one person causing ill feeling in another, however, the scope of the narrative feels artificially limited. By opening it up a bit more, and either making it more specific to the portrayed relationship or universal enough to take a wider political agenda into account, Speak No Evil could pack a hell of a punch as both comedy and a commentary on today’s society.

As Radice said during the post-show talkback, it’s getting harder and harder to find scripts that are truly theatrical, and not just episodes of television that unfold on a stage.  Sobieski’s alternate reality is dreamily disconnected from our own, and this blended with the play’s apparent metaphysics and the set lends a dream-like quality to much of the piece. Radice’s sparse set (full disclosure: my first play, 1999’s POST, featured a set by Radice) is made up of a handful of chairs and desks, with few props. Most of the play’s visual personality comes from the costumes, designed by Stilson (more disclosure: she was the director for my first Edinburgh fringe festival play, PLAYING IT COOL, and also involved in POST’s production). They’re bright, colorful and vary dramatically from one character to the next.

In the end, Speak No Evil seems to succeed in what it set out to do, but one wishes it had set out to do a bit more. For a play with a poster that recalls both the Rolling Stones and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it is – overall – surprisingly straightlaced.

Speak No Evil runs from now through February 13, 2016 at the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo.

THEATRE REVIEW: Why Torture Is Wrong and The People Who Love Them

Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Thomas LaChiusa
Subversive Theatre Company

Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them by Christoper Durang, has a plot that unfolds – at first – quite neatly. A young woman (Felicity, played by Andrea Andolina) wakes up in bed with a man (Zamir, played by Michael Votta) who she doesn’t know. Who, as far as she can tell, she’s married by accident. As the action develops, it begins to take a strange veer away from reality, heading into an absurd – yet frighteningly possible – world.

Feicity is, throughout the first act, constrained by the barely-restrained violence of combating Alpha males Leonard (her father, played by Victor Morales) and her new husband Zamir. Her mother Luella (Christopher Standart) has disassociated from the world, relying on absent-minded discussion of Broadway hits (Wicked, A Chorus Line) and is at odds with her daughter’s desire to tackle problems in the here and now. Namely, the problem of Zamir. He might be a danger. Or a terrorist. He’s already shown some tendencies toward violence – if not physical, yet, the certainly verbal – and while Felicity wants her parents’ help in getting an annulment, she also doesn’t want Zamir hurt. It’s a pretty morally admirable decision, given Zamir’s actions towards her early on. Still, one cheers a little when he and Leonard stand off. The delicious whiff of mutually-assured destruction is in the air.

The play strikes the same cheery, sick satirical chords as something like Torben Betts’ The Unconquered, or (if I’m giving his an even darker comparison) Sarah Kane’s Blasted (if Blasted were played for laughs without any on-stage violence). Some cultural force has warped our male leads, and one almost hopes the dystopia of the outside world is bad enough to justify the chill that runs through Durang’s script when it comes to his character’s brutality. One suspects that world might be reality, while hoping that isn’t the case.

Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is a funhouse-mirror post-9/11 dark comedy. The metaphors for punishment without trial, racial profiling and next-generation “patriots” (the kind who take selfies flanked by flags and guns and government conspiracy theories) and domestic violence are present. It asks us, as viewers: how does a person cope with all that? Can we, as society, stand our ground and demand the ability to effect change (Felicity’s stance, in the first act), or disassociate into a disengaged enjoyment of our Marxian opiate of choice?

Luella, we see, has chosen the latter. While her husband waxes poetic about “Father Knows Best,” exploring the taste of calling his daughter the pet names from the kids in the classic TV show, Luella wears matching floral house dresses and insists on lighthearted conversation about the Theatre and French Toast. While she develops into an ally for Felicity as the play moves on, one can never be sure of when Luella’s small-chat fog may be sliced open by razor lucidity.

As for Leonard, everything we hear about his contact with the government? We hear it from him, or from one of his co-conspirators. In other words, it’s not hard to imagine that his Shadow world is, just like Luella’s also turtles all the way down. It might as well be self-contained. If Luella has floated away, maybe Leonard and his fellow nutjobs aren’t far behind.

If so, then what can be made of the final movement of the script, where Felicity’s compassion for Zamir – a man who has threatened and intimidated her – allows her to finally wrest away control of the situation’s swiftly deteriorating violence? She takes charge and the axis of Durang’s play starts to twist. A voice that’s been speaking to the audience throughout the play – Becky Globus, who also takes on several other roles – smashes through the 4th wall, and Felicity wills a feat of metatextual narrative timetravel. Her drive to change what’s happened drags the whole cast, including a pornographic priest (James Cichocki) and one of Leonard’s whackadoo comrades (Mike Seitz), back to a point before the play even started: the night Felicity and Zamir meet.

Conjured back to their ground zero, Felicity searches for a way in which the best aspects of herself and Zamir can be together – while also setting clear and entirely reasonable boundaries about what she wants as the end result: a world where things turn out differently. She directs the conversation carefully, laying out boundaries and guidelines, until she’s coached both herself and Zamir to what might be their “best aspect”. Zamir wonders if this even leaves him as the same same person, but Felicity’s insistence carries the day. Have they truly time-traveled, and will they now create a better future? Or has Felicity just experienced just had a disassociative snap, her mind creating a false reality to protect her from the world’s harsh truths? Has Felicity just found her delusional opium?

That I’m left with questions like these (and more) is a testament to the quality of Durang’s script, Thomas LaChiusa’s direction, and the cast’s ability to seamlessly integrate the two. Subversive’s production is tight and focused, an achievement for a show gets farther “out there” than normal. It’s easy for a play that toys so much with fantasy and reality (including metatextually) to drift aimlessly, but Why Torture Is Wrong…keeps its feet on the ground. And that makes a huge amount of difference in its ability to hold the audience over the course of two hours, as well in its ability to spark thought afterwards.

While John Kennedy and Michael Lodick’s set doesn’t quite evoke the luxury the script indicates, it’s unclear if that’s because the wealth isn’t translating physically, or if – like Zamir’s insistence on being somehow Irish – it’s yet another place where character’s perceptions and reality diverge.

Why Torture Is Wrong… is at the Subversive Theatre in Buffalo, New York through April 12, 2015, and I hope you make the time to see it.

Tickets were comped for this production.

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