Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: "Buried Child" at The Rep 15th February 2010

Recently The Rep’s choices of plays have been heavily into far out, dark and malevolent territory. And I can't help wondering if that's intentional.

The current production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child serves as an example. It follows backbiting, bitchy The Queens by Normand Chaurette, preceded in September by a nasty bunch of guys reuniting in Jason Miller’s That Championship Season. In June there was Mojo by Jez Butterworth where a bunch of cockney sleezeballs rough it up. And, not long before that, there was Edward Albee’s exploration of obsessive bestiality, The Goat. Every one of these plays comes permeated with unhappy people poisoning the surrounding air and other people with misery and anger. Several of these plays also feature graphic violence. You could look rather hard and deeply at all five before coming across any redeeming characters. And, except for Albee’s brilliant stunner, you’d be hard put to find major moral or philosophical points.

I can’t help wondering what is behind the cumulative effect or intent of these choices for the Point Park University Theatre professional company. Certainly the overall impression suggests that the Rep may aim to explore, present and experiment with off-beat, provocative contemporary theatre. That seems a worthy endeavor. But, collectively, you could infer a depressed and negative view of the world and of life. Is this what The Rep is trying to tell us? And, just as important, what is it trying to tell the young people who are students of the University?

Make no mistake; the acting by many fine Pittsburgh actors in these productions has remained impeccable, consistently skillful and convincing. In Buried Child, local artists Jeffrey Carpenter and Patrick Jordan give scary credibility to their roles. No surprise, really, they inevitably enhance whatever they perform. And director John Shepard also makes it work believably, aided by excellent sound and lighting designs.

Has the project something worthy to offer? The play brims with unlikeable, dysfunctional characters who babble, crawl, cringe, rant, squirm, and spew misery all over the cracked and seedy territory. Not one of them seems likable or even pitiable. And, within the developments, much remains unexplained and unjustified.

But wait! An on-line search reveals that many critics think very highly of the play. Moreover Buried Child won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and launched Shepard to national fame as a playwright. Despite being, therefore, out of step, I have to say that I just don’t get why so many think it’s so great.

If you look at the praise, it comes first from not seeing these characters or their situation as real, but, instead, symbolic. Simply put, critics describe the play as depicting the fragmentation of the American nuclear family struggling with disappointment and disillusionment with the presumed American dream. OK. I can see that. But we're looking at people who seem real, not presented as abstractions. Also approvingly cited by the critics is the theme of a family trying to deal with an economic slowdown in rural economy and with a breakdown of traditional family values. Well, maybe. I didn't hear dialogue emphasizing any of these points. Besides, the family breakdown/ fragmentation thing turns up all the time in theatre.

But who among us can relate to the specifics of these ugly, confused people? Who would want to? The elderly Dodge, peppered with illness and loads of pills, sneaks smokes and booze while he and his wife Halie interminably yell back and forth at each other from separate rooms repeating nearly every empty thing they say. Dodge’s grown son Tilden whose recent history is never explained, emerges as a dimwit. Another grown son Bradley, lacking one leg, menacingly lolls around the house. Tilden’s son Vince arrives and soon goes off his rocker for no evident reason. And Halie turns out, when finally seen, after all that shouting gab, to look elegantly dressed as if from another planet, even turning up, inexplicably in a new outfit after having been away overnight. Sort of a Blanche Dubois, but without the touching sadness.

Also mentioned by approving critics are humor and poetic speech. Well, certainly, given those personalities, they could turn out to be wildly off-center funny. Yet, when I saw a performance on February 12th I got no sense of anyone in the full theatre laughing and I certainly didn't laugh either. If this is supposed to be funny, none of us was getting it. Other praise goes to poetic speech. Although every word came across clearly in the small theater, nothing sounded in the least poetic to me. Maybe Shepard’s directing didn’t intend to emphasize those elements.

The cast also includes two other capable Pittsburghers, former Point Park grad Nikitas Menotiades as Vince and current senior Kiley Caughey as Vince’s girlfriend Shelly. But Dodge and Halie are played by two out-of-town actors with major credits and major skills. They remain as totally believable as the rest of the ensemble.

But why were they cast when Pittsburgh has equally gifted actors who could play the roles and whose presence and versatility would add to the attraction? And why is this theatre company called “The Rep” anyway? Plays do not run in alternating repertory. And there is no repertory company, even though the Point Park University Theatre Department has excellent actors on its faculty who could be the nucleus of such a company. Sure, some of them turn up from time to time in various productions, but mostly the casts instead include other actors. Often other talented Pittsburghers. Give the Rep credit, then, for encouraging and recognizing local talent.

As for themes, next up: a tale focusing on Jack the Ripper. See what I mean?
Buried Child continues thorough February 21st at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/621-4445

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