Sweet and sour

There are two kinds of despair in literature--mature and immature. Immature despair is a cry for attention disguised as a suicide attempt--it's easily dismissed, even satirized, because the author cannot contain his or her narcissism for long. What might begin eloquently as a lament for the fragile human condition eventually betrays itself as the author's whiny grocery list of grievances.

Mature despair is the sorrow that is a perfectly rational response to a world of pain and terror. It's a peek into the abyss, perhaps the most subversive of all political statements because it renders all politics irrelevant, and much harder to articulate than garden-variety adolescent angst. Ultimately, most writers want to exorcise their demons through art, but very few bother to understand the implications of the exorcism ritual--that the subject won't merely be cleansed, but contextualized. The battle of good against evil, faith against faithlessness, is much larger than the individual warriors. Writers need to understand that their existential "Ouch!" will be swallowed up by the cacophony of history, which includes sounds of luck and disaster, joy as well as suffering; their contributions must therefore be as symphony members, not conductors.

For its final production, Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative has chosen to debut a brittle, sinister, but consistently funny script by New York-based playwright Bob Jude Ferrante. Hemlock: A Greek Diner Tragedy is a hearty raspberry aimed at religious and intellectual institutions who teach hope not as a portal of transcendence, but to keep the little people in line. As such, a sense of perspective, of honest reflection about the duality of experience, sometimes gets mowed down in the crossfire--after the show, you want to buy the playwright a beer and tell him to keep his chin up. But his devilish wordplay and intellectual acrobatics make simply dismissing him as difficult as winning a greased pig contest--no matter how superior you fancy yourself to his pessimistic themes, the suckers always manage to wriggle out of your grasp.

Under the nimble, propulsive direction of Extra Virgin founder Gretchen Swen, and thanks to a crackshot cast brimming over with excellent comic timing, Hemlock emphasizes the laughs over the pain. If it's true, as Pablo Neruda once noted, that laughter is the language of the soul, then Hemlock might best be appreciated as a really clever dirty joke--a philosophical affirmation of humankind's worst fears and worst instincts, as perversely comforting for its familiarity as a sadomasochistic relationship.

The play hops times and dimensions with the nervous attention of a caffeine addict, but by the second act, settles into a consistent time, place, and dilemma. Playwright Bob Jude Ferrante has thrown a variety of philosophical and theological approaches into a gigantic comic Cuisinart and come up with a pulpy mesh of viewpoints. Atheism and monotheism, free will and fatalism coincide with surprising ease in Ferrante's tale of a Brooklyn diner operator whose nightmares pull him into a Kafkaesque Inquisition conducted by a pseudo-Roman Catholic hierarchy of cardinals and a papal grand inquisitor who works for God, yet exhibits a chilling disregard for mercy, grace, and other divine attributes.

David (Ian Leson) operates a floundering establishment with his wife, Marie (Kalin Burke). His nightly visions of death and persecution by an unknown agency aren't helped much by his professor friend Peter (Robert Erwin), a conspiracy theorist whose paranoia seems to be justified when a stranger (Adam Yankay) drags them into a murder investigation that becomes a prosecution of David.

As if all this weren't enough, Hemlock rewinds to 399 B.C. Athens, where an enthusiastic Plato (Leson) is preparing the final statement of his teacher Socrates (Erwin), who's about to be executed by the state for "corrupting youth" with his ideas. The playwright makes broad but resonant connections among various historical campaigns against individuals, including the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution, and wraps them up by sending David to a dungeon where his trial for unspecified crimes is overseen by Auguste Menard (Wm. Paul Williams), a robed deputy of God who might be the bastard son of an illicit affair between Faith and Reason.

Hemlock is a gigantic Rorschach on which you can project all kinds of personally biased interpretations. Thanks to the muscularity of Bob Jude Ferrante's dialogue and Extra Virgin's airtight production, this is a strength. To offer only one of several possible readings, Ferrante flips the bird at the circularity of Socratic-Platonic reason, in the process actually affirming the very mystery he seems to dismantle. The powers-that-be in this play may be clothed in Catholic ceremonial garb and may continually (if coldly) acknowledge the existence of God, but they're really parroting the Greek party line of logic, the belief that everything can be imprisoned in one of Plato's immutable forms.

Hemlock answers the terrifying question: "If humankind was created in the image of God, does that mean God thinks the same way the founders of civilization--or at least, Western civilization--think?" If so, you can easily envision the nightmare scenario that this play posits--God would appoint a cruelly efficient middle manager with dumb but faithful lackeys to carry out holy orders, being far less interested in the micro-management of individual lives than in the prevalence of abstract, grandiose notions of justice and morality.

You wouldn't be able to speculate about such slippery notions if Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative didn't offer a bouquet of smart, controlled performances. As the Grand Inquisitor Auguste Menard, Wm. Paul Williams is a merry projection of relentless practicality, a soldier of God whose utter Godlessness has endeared him to the Creator. As both Crito, a trusted friend of Socrates, and Marie, the flirtatious but forbidding wife of David, Kalin Burke drops plenty of hints about the darkness to come in a whirlwind performance of vaguely antagonistic quips. As a sarcastic Socrates and the paranoid Peter,

Robert Erwin veers between wisdom and fear with precision.
This production of Hemlock wouldn't have succeeded without Ian Leson's confident performance as Plato/David. His is essentially the role of perpetual reactor, the trampoline against which the playwright bounces his angriest contentions. But Leson emerges as a soulful hero, whether he's playing catch-up as the Socratic diarist Plato or, as David, surveying his own mortality in the face of a celestial conspiracy against passion. He's equally successful in moments of danger and comic relief.

Hemlock shoves a piping-hot dish of contradictions in your face and asks you to savor each one. Luckily, both the playwright and Extra Virgin have full grasp of the recipe. The final concoction won't please everyone's palate, but chances are you won't stop till your plate is clean.

Hemlock: A Greek Diner Tragedy runs through August 10. Call (214) 941-3664.