It Takes Two

Dan Day, top, becomes nursemaid, confidant, cheerleader, and betrayer of Chris Carlos, a South American revolutionary, in Kitchen Dog's superlative show.
Nicole Nelson

Over my five years-plus stint as a theater critic in this town, actor after actor has told me that after the experience of directing themselves in a play, they'd never do it again. (Having seen some of the results of this overburdening of theatrical responsibilities, I have been tempted to ask other actors to please, please not do that again.) The common complaint goes: They missed too much during rehearsals about the other performers or the pace or the design that became glaringly, sometimes embarrassingly apparent to them in the middle of a performance. It's simply too taxing for actors to struggle to create real moments for themselves when they're busy thinking about the other performers' roles in such a technical, critical way. There's nothing inherently destructive in such collaboration with the self; it's just contradictory and confounding, this looking outward and inward at the same time.

I've heard fewer complaints about productions that credit two directors from the artists involved, but I have seen a few plays where each performer had apparently been assigned entirely unrelated bits of business within the same script, as if one director took an interest in these roles, another in those roles, and the audience had to piece the playwright's themes and intentions back together from evidence as scattered as a satellite crash site. Kitchen Dog's latest production, Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman, can brag that it has confronted a toothy pair of big-cat jaws--two actors directing their own two-man show. I must admit, I was a tad nervous walking into the MAC's Heldt/Hall space to watch this collaboration between Dan Day and Chris Carlos, two unshakably confident stage artists who've occasionally become mired in their own abilities. In their less disciplined moments, they err in opposite directions--Day can seem self-absorbed, emotionally unreadable, while Carlos can turn bombastic and overly gestural. One flickers, the other flares. With Spider Woman, these actor-directors turn unsparing searchlights into themselves, each other, and their characters, and the result is a harmony sung sweetly through every level of this theatrical creation. The real coup here: The consummation of intimacy between a hot-headed Argentinean leftist and an effeminate, movie-loving gay sentimentalist that seemed so unlikely in Hector Babenco's 1985 movie feels not just plausible, but inevitable. I can't remember when I've seen an onstage friendship--same-sex, or between a man and a woman--feel quite so authentic. Nor has the most tragic theatrical romance relayed neediness so gently, so sympathetically. Much of it has to do with the unobtrusively ingenious staging: The dimly lit cell these prisoners share is a platform raised from the middle of the stage. Darkness floats all around them, and we sit in it concentrating on their exchanges with no chance of distraction.

If you've seen Babenco's flick, you may feel that the story is too familiar to warrant a revisit. But Puig turned his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman into a play before it was filmed (and before it became a musical). The book's long footnotes and elaborate descriptions of multiple film-noir scenarios have been discarded in favor of one movie fey Molina (Day) describes to macho, mustachioed Valentin (Carlos)--Val Lewton's ultra-Freudian horror classic Curse of the Cat People. You can feel that Puig has trimmed his original version to the quick, and the performers assume the emotional nakedness with hushed authority. Carlos revives memories of his marvelously abusive Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew, although loneliness eventually softens Valentin's bite and almost defangs him.

Thank God, we're beginning to depart an era when it's considered brave for a straight actor to play a gay role; it resulted in some castrated, well-meaningfully distorted reflections. In an unusually intelligent and perceptive choice, Day plays Molina less as a fussy, sybaritic queen and more as an overgrown kid. That's what lay behind the silk, chocolate, and fantasy addictions of Molina--a refusal to surrender to the nasty, homophobic adult world. It's a core few actors, straight or gay, get to when playing homosexual men, but just one of the bittersweet truths Kitchen Dog disinters in its remarkable production.

Speaking before London's National Union of Journalists in late 1999, the radical-as-ever limey playwright and activist Howard Brenton said, "When theater goes decadent, you get actors being dominant. But in our time, directors are dominant." This was by way of praising contemporary theater that skewered first, the economic establishment and then, all the bigotry that keeps people downtrodden. (Ever the student of Marx and Brecht even into his 60s, Brenton believes the latter springs from the former.) The playwright described how he has forever battled the "default" setting of the theater, whereby the plot is lost by audiences, who prefer to cling to "spectacular acting." Given the slightest hint of boredom or offense, they will always return to that and away from Brenton's social critiques.

Apparently, he reported all this with a sense of humor, but it was yet another shot fired in that endless (and probably useless) battle over who matters most in the theatrical process--writer, director, actor, or audience. The answer is simple--each thinks he or she is the most valuable, but since the audience is paying for rather than being paid for the experience, it ought to take top consideration by all concerned. (Brenton would hate my vulgarian capitalist appraisal.)

As a critic, I got my ticket comped for Christie in Love, the latest one-act entry in Kitchen Dog's unpredictable Cabaret Series, so by my own free-market estimation, I'm an inferior viewer. But it's doubtful that forking over cash would have allowed me to receive any special richness in the playwright's script, which seemed pointless or, rather, wielded a point that was too dull to puncture my gray matter.

Certainly, Brenton intended to use the true-life case of John Reginald Christie, a meek Englishman who stored the bodies of murdered women inside his walls and under his floors, as a reflection of how investigators and prosecutors can become inhuman in the face of humanity. Director Tim Johnson is a smart enough fellow to know that even those who recognize the symbiotic relationship between criminal corruption and a corrupt criminal system will find Brenton's 1969 tin-sheet beating a poor substitute for the real social thunder stirred by, say, current DNA-test revelations of prosecutorial sloth and impropriety. And so he has flipped the theatrical switch to "default," nudging his talented trio of actors to seek laughter with comic moxie that's broader and far less brittle than the material they're performing. I suspect Brenton would disapprove (not that we should give a shit), but this time, it's the director who spoils his furious upbraiding of our corroding institutions.

Christie in Love begins intriguingly enough. A constable (David Goodwin) furiously and fruitlessly overturns a snow bank of crumpled-up newspapers with a shovel, pausing here and there to recite a dirty limerick, while a soundtrack features Lynn Mathis intoning the raw stats of Christie's life and misdeeds. Eventually, two interlopers join him in this flurry of disposable headlines: an inspector (Raphael Parry), and Christie (Terry Vandivort, in the show's most thoughtful rendering), who emerges from the newsprint to be confronted with sadistic zeal by the inspector and the constable. The rest room stall poetry that opened the piece turns truly nasty as the police taunt an initially weak and terrified Christie with his own misdeeds and eventually draw out of him the shoved-down store of misogynistic rage that prompted his heinous acts. In a performance that needs a pruning of vocal and facial expressiveness, Parry makes sure we never miss that the inspector is slipping in and out of irony with his hostile countdown of a woman's repulsive body; the quieter, slyer Goodwin takes a life-size rag doll and assumes the role of one of the victims, a flirtatious prostitute who inflames Christie with her shamelessness. These hijinks are neither clever enough nor disturbing enough to breach the impassiveness and, ultimately, apathy with which we view them.

What's the source of my cynicism in the face of such a potentially incendiary production? Given the enormous mistrust in the criminal justice system that has risen over the last two decades, Christie in Love feels self-evident no matter what side of the arguments you land on. The problem is compounded by the light odor of self-satisfaction that tingled inside my nostrils; Brenton thinks we are shocked, shocked to learn that the potential for cruelty lies in all of us, and that this includes the folks we pay (very little) to round up and deal with the predators in our midst. Brenton (and the clownishly overinspired Kitchen Dog cast) are jumping up and down, shouting, and making faces to convey something I figured out long before I met them. My reaction was a kind of "theatrical default" that Brenton never mentioned. I started nodding off before the show was over.

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