Life in Pictures

It's 1999, the end of history as we know it, with the Cold War over and the Western World infatuated with its own narcissistic reflection as it gazes into its navel and can't see past itself. Forget the big picture. There are no more big ideas. There's no more big government. Good and evil are relative terms. The twin gods of capitalism and consumerism have defeated socialism and altruism, and the search for meaning ends with the first two letters of the word. The Gen-X-ers or Y-ers, or whatever their letter is, just want to have fun. Or so they proclaim in the self-absorbed "happy world" of British playwright Mark Ravenhill's Some Explicit Polaroids.

Into this world comes boomer-aged ex-con Nick, who has been frozen in time, incarcerated since 1984 for a political crime he committed by knifing Jonathan, a captain of industry. Nick may have done his time and returned to London, but he is mired in the old ways. He believes there are still good fights to fight and good women to love. He searches for meaning and for his former girlfriend Helen, finding only the latter, whose revolutionary zeal has been co-opted by her political ambition to become a member of Parliament. Though she once incited him to kill, she is now a "counselor" in the bureaucracy that deregulates the bus service. "You make the buses run on time?" asks Nick, who then pleads to remain in Helen's flat, seeking shelter from a culture he can't comprehend.

When Helen unceremoniously tells Nick to "fuck off," the play takes a hard right, cutting to its second scenario, the story of Tim, Nadia and Victor, hedonists all. Sex slave Victor has just arrived by plane from Eastern Europe, but his Polaroid image was downloaded long before by Tim, who has AIDS and lives a drug-prolonged life, numb to any feelings that aren't sexual. Their virtual encounter has now blossomed into a real one--as real as things get for the trio that rummages through a trash culture that considers nihilism a virtue, necrophilia an act of love and sadomasochism its own reward.

This clash of cultures, generations and ideas is brought to you by the makers of Kitchen Dog Theater, who offer up a stingingly witty, sometimes profound production for the Southwestern premiere of Some Explicit Polaroids. The KDT cast is first-rate--there's not a weak performance in the bunch--despite the challenge of the material, which at times borders on the didactic.

Playwright Ravenhill must have also been challenged by the work. As a drama student, he discovered an obscure German play in which a political activist was arrested during an insurrection in 1919. Released a decade later, he finds himself lost among the depravity of Berlin (think Cabaret). Unable to cope in this land of nihilism, he returns to the familiarity of prison. The play's premise became the source material for Some Explicit Polaroids, though it's updated to the '90s and seizes upon the theme of '60s radicals who were willing to ruin their lives for a revolution that never came.

But Ravenhill had a difficult time writing the piece. Hailed as the bad boy of British theater, part of a new brand of playwrights who personified the "drama of discontent," he labored under the major success of his first play, Fucking and Shopping, which is chock-full of the same in-your-face explicitness--both linguistically and sexually--that marks Polaroids. After Fucking, he wrote several adaptations, but in terms of original work he fell into the sophomore slump experienced by many young playwrights. Even though much of Polaroids came out of improvisations with its actors, the British premiere of the play had to be delayed because it wasn't ready. Nevertheless, it opened to generally favorable reviews, even from "conservative" critics who "just didn't get it"--or so said other critics who apparently did.

Of course, getting Ravenhill is not altogether easy, though the KDT production makes Polaroids as accessible as possible. The set itself (designed by Michael Sullivan and splashed in fluorescent light by Steve Woods) feels like the inside of a camera, a mechanized, minimalist black box that suggests the icy slickness of our culture. Between scenes, three hanging television screens bombard the audience with images of the times--everything from porn to Teletubbies--as techno music drives the visuals into your head. Director Tim Sullivan is quite facile at keeping the piece aloft; its high energy never wanes, not even for a second. What amazes is that the play's ideas, all cross-purposed and conflicted, are kept so alive and lively by the intelligent and dryly humorous performances of the actors.

Most notable is Bill Jenkins as Nick, the tortured socialist who must confront his demons as well as the man he knifed, Jonathan (Ross Morgan), if he is to live in the new world order. He tries to find his moral anchor in love and cross-pollinates between plot lines, ping-ponging between Helen (played efficiently by Theo Lane Moffett) and Nadia (Any Shoults), a stripper who's obviously read too many self-help books. She's the chief purveyor of moral relativism; her blame-free psychobabble even excuses the behavior of the man who habitually batters her--because he is himself afraid, she says. Shoults does an admirable job as Nadia, playing her with the conviction of someone who lacks conviction, a frail femme holding on just hard enough not to get blown away by the prevailing winds. Despite Nick's entreaties to get Nadia to quit sleepwalking through life, any attempt to get her to feel something outside herself seems destined to fail.

Young Michael Hanson, making his professional debut at KDT, seems to inhabit Victor, the downloaded sex slave, but comes at his role rather broadly, milking the comic elements--"Men go crazy for my body"--in a manner reminiscent of Ben Stiller (he even looks like the guy). It's only when lover Tim (David Plunkett) stops taking his meds in a selfish attempt to feel alive by dying that Victor becomes fully realized as a character. Then again, this is where the play seems to veer off its course, turning otherworldly and straying too far from the chilly reality of what came before.

The character of Jonathan is well worth a mention, performed with finesse and charm--and a dormant outrage that could set fire to the theater if properly ignited. Jonathan plays the avenger, doggedly seeking to confront Nick with the consequences of his actions and Helen and Nadia with their own emotional truths. What makes the play structurally compelling is that each character is a protagonist in his or her own life drama, and despite the cynicism heaped on people for wanting to "grow and change," each character undergoes his or her own catharsis, and none leaves the play the way they entered it.

Mark Ravenhill is fortunate in one regard. Imagine what blocks the writer might have encountered if he had tried to pen a play about the end of history after the tragic events at the World Trade Center. Evil has been brushed off and given new meaning. Causes are larger than one's life. Self-celebration seems petty and irrelevant.

Yet oddly enough, the play remains viable as well as relevant. From its conflict of generations and its clash of cultures, from its erotic displays of despair and emptiness and decadence (but in a fun way) arises the message that making an emotional connection with somebody, anybody (even if they are dead), certainly makes life more meaningful. And that's not a bad message in these times.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald