Friday, May 28, 2010

Crimes of the Heart

Lenny is not having a good birthday. Not that anyone remembers that she is turning 30, but her beloved horse was just struck down by lightening, her grandfather is getting worse in the hospital, and she can't contact her much prettier sister to tell her that the youngest sister is in jail for shooting her own damn husband because she "didn't like his looks."

This immediate series of unfortunate events at South Coast Repertory's Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley is quite a bit to handle in the first ten minutes of a play, but the humorous absurdity of it all (horse struck by lightening? Really?) is quickly counterbalanced by the deep dysfunction and tragedy of a family legacy in the deep South. The three unfortunate sisters discovered the body of their suicidal mother at a young age; the national attention they received from a mother who hanged herself (oh, and hanged their cat) in the basement still haunting them in adulthood.

Lenny, played with an awkward humor by Blair Sams, is tied to the family home, taking care of the ailing Granddaddy that raised them after their mother's death and not taking time to find love for herself. Meg, played with a self-aware sexuality by Jennifer Lyon, has a completely failed singing career in California, has had "too many men" and her own recent nervous breakdown. And, as the catalyst for their reunion, Babe (Kate Rylie) has just shot her abusive husband in the stomach after he came home unexpectedly, catching her spending time with the fifteen-year-old black boy she has been having an illicit affair with (at a time in the South when such affair could easily leave such a boy murdered). Together they face Babe's upcoming trial against her politician husband as their resentments, secrets, and memories slowly make themselves apparent.

Henley has a great knack for finding humor in the darkest of situations, and the cast at SCR did a fantastic job at pulling out even more laughs. The characters were really and truly dysfunctional, their selfish decisions ruining the lives of others or themselves, but, as with more recent family portraits such as August: Osage County, I never felt an uplifting break in the cycle of suicidal despair and mistreatment by men. The message of the play seemed to be that its not up to women to break the cycle (except for Lenny, who finally connects with a man who loves her), but rather to be there to support each other through it.

I certainly left wishing I had a sister, and grateful for the girlfriends in my life that substitute.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

I was lucky enough to see the world premier of Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the Kirk Douglas Theatre last year, and I was so excited when the Mark Taper announced that they would be remounting it this season. I mean, when a show contains dialogue like, "I'm sorry I'm bothering you, but you're the only person who can hear me besides the Tiger, and the Tiger just keeps bugging me about epistemology and original sin, which is as annoying as fuck," you know you're intrigued. Did I mention this is a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer?

Directed by Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project), this show examines the war in Iraq with razor blade humor and heart-wrenching honesty. Having seen it last year, I had somewhat prepared myself for the blood and loss, but the intimate space of the Taper brings the hopeless feeling of Baghdad right into the pit of your stomach. The acting in this show is absolutely flawless, bringing the story in and out of time and reality, seamlessly traveling from before and during the American occupation. Joseph's triumph in this piece is that he blames no one power for the suffering: The Americans are (literally) chasing after golden toilet seats, and the Hussein family rapes, murders, and tortures their own people. The only downfall in the piece is that it offers no sense of hope, ever. The ghost of the Tiger from the blown-up Baghdad zoo (an atheist in life, apparently) discovers in death that his soul must be lingering on earth because of God, but God never shows himself to reveal why he is prolonging the endless suffering.

This is a beautiful show and I think it will serve history with a vivid image of how this war is being perceived seven years into it: If possible, how do the good people living in a crumbling city stay good? And if neither of the powers that fought over it were looking out for the best interests of those good people, then what now?