Saturday, November 06, 2004

Tone Cluster/Whirlgig (convergence-continuum)

Convergence-continuum ends season with two one-acts

Tone Clusters are musical notes which are more tightly grouped than those normally found in chords. They are built by starting with a chord in its normal state and then applying non-chordal tones which produce the eventual cluster. This process enables the musical writer to retain the original chord function. It is this musical device that gives both the title and writing style to Joyce Carol Oates play, ‘TONE CLUSTER.’

First produced in 1989 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the unnerving drama centers on a father and mother enduring an unnerving, often absurd interview with a voice that pries into a family tragedy.

To explore the themes of violence and responsibility, the play combines realistic elements with stark and surreal imagery. The production makes use of film, projected slides, and live audio and video along with two actors who sit on stage facing the audience throughout the production. The play’s structure includes flashbacks, flash forwards, digressions, and interruptions in the normal flow of organized thought.

Oates, who is an author of film scripts (e.g., ‘WE WERE THE MULVANEYS ‘ and ‘BLONDE’) and novels, as well as plays, explains her theatrical style by stating, “In my writing for the theater I always have in mind, as an undercurrent shaping and guiding the surface action, the ancient structure of drama as sacrificial rite.” This is evident in ‘TONE CLUSTERS.’ The audience is never allowed to divorce themselves from the action. Excessive theatricalism doesn’t give the viewer the luxury of just sitting back and watching. One jarring effect after another, one startling revelation after another invades the theatre.

The convergence-continuum production, under the direction of Douglas H. Snyder, accomplishes Oates intentions.

Times Tributes multi-award winner Lucy Bredeson-Smith gives yet another outstanding performance. She completely conveys the anguish, angst, frustration, shame, confusion and guilt of the mother trying to defend her son from being convicted for committing a horrendous act of raping and killing a neighborhood teenager. Her consistent nervous mannerisms, deer-in-the-headlights stare and twitching body are the embodiment of an actress who has transformed herself into a character she completely understands. Clyde Simon is her anguished equal. He rages, rants, and tries to control his conflicted outrage with conviction. On the other hand, Brian Breth doesn’t clearly establish a tone as the heard but not seen interviewer. Is he accusing, is he neutral, does he have an agenda for the interview? None of this is made clear. In addition, his stumbles during the interview were distracting.

Several audience members complained about the loud blaring audio. Yes, the play needs to be jarring, but not so overly loud that people had to sit with their hands over their ears. Another question arose concerning why the pictures being seen and the vocals didn’t match. In many cases this was necessary to illustrate that what was being said didn’t parallel to what was being seen, thus creating a conflict in reality. However, at times, references to the blue painted house and the muscular physicality of the son, needed to be real to create the idea that some of what was being said was, in truth, factual.

The second of the one acts on the convergence-continuum program is Mac Wellman’s ‘WHIRLIGIG.’

Wellman is a favorite of Clyde Simon, the theatre’s Artistic Director. As he says in the program, “A bunch of us in the convergence-continuum company like his stuff.” He loves Wellman’s “wild use of words, his conjuring up of unconventional characters and strange world in which the weird appears familiar and the familiar seems bizarre.”

To be honest, I, on the other hand, find Wellman to be tedious, intentionally abstract, using endless words to create confusion in the mind of the audience. Each time I have gone to see any of the four Wellman plays that the theatre has produced I hope to see what Simon views in the plays. After enduring ‘WHIRLIGIG’ I still don’t see eye-to eye with Simon.

With that said, a whirligig is a child's toy that whirls or spins, as a pinwheel. The play ‘WHIRLIGIG, shares many qualities of the child’s toy. The rendering is full of energy and motion, but like its namesake, is not quite sure of its direction. Because of this it spins out of control, thus coming out short of achieving the full effect on its audience.

The setting is an anonymous bus station somewhere in America. GIRL is a young rebellious woman with streaked green hair and the overwhelming desire to escape her present existence. She waits, with two suitcases, for a bus headed anywhere. She shares her one desire to become one of the Mongolian Huns, who "obeyed no laws and had no rules." XUTHUS, a silver-painted man appears. He explains that his original planet, the sand world of Plinth, was blown up in a nuclear accident. He has arrived on Earth to figure out what it is that makes humans happy. A BUS MAN appears and tells them that the vehicle will not be coming. SISTER appears and is “killed” by an oath uttered by GIRL. The same SISTER appears again, is killed and she is replaced by yet another who meets the same fate. (Honestly, I’m not making this up.) The climax is supposed to allows us to realize Wellman’s supposed message, “the surface of things is obscure.”

As one critic, with whom I totally agree, wrote, “Is this a play about human happiness? Is it attempting to express contempt for a particular kind of human existence, steeped in traditional values and safe attitudes? The play is obviously searching for an escape from rules and laws, but in doing so, it leaves its audience without a path to follow. Just when we think we have grasped the integral qualities of the characters and where they are going, we are dismayed to find that the action completely shifts and we have not understood anything at all.”

Simon, as almost everything he directs, does a very competent job. The performances are quite fine as are the production qualities.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENTS: ‘TONE CLUSTERS’ is an interesting play that gets a thought provoking production. As for “WHIRLIGIG,’ if you like Wellman’s writing, you’ll like this play. If not, leave after the first act. You’ll get your money’s worth just having seen the performances in ‘TONE CLUSTERS.’