Sunday, March 26, 2017

“Harm’s Way” examines the underbelly of humanity at convergence continuum

Cleveland is in the midst of “The Mac Wellman Homecoming Festival,” presented by Playwrights Local, in partnership with Cleveland State University Department of English, the NEOMFA Creative Writing Program, and the Michael Schwartz Library, with performances by Playwrights Local, Theater Ninjas, convergence-continuum, CSU Department of Theatre & Dance, Baldwin Wallace University Department of Theatre and Dance, and The Manhattan Project–Cleveland Lab.

Mac Wellman, a local product, is a playwright, author, and poet.  His work is experimental in nature, rebelling against traditional theatrical conventions, such as having a clear plot. 

His play, “Harm’s Way,” is being staged at convergence-continuum, as part of the Festival.  Having a Wellman play at con-con is not an accident.  Clyde Simon, the theatre’s artistic director, seemingly has a thing for the author, having produced numerous stagings of his scripts.

In order to even attempt to “understand” a Wellman play requires a knowledge of the writer and his attitudes toward society and theatre.

In an interview about his philosophy of writing, Wellman said, “I am a pessimist, but a cheerful one. I believe, along with Beckett and Handke and Witkiewicz, that the depth is on the surface.”  He further stated that he uses words as objects in his writing. "I found if you try to write totally in clichés and things that don't sound right, you deal with a language that frankly is 98% of what people speak, think, and hear.”

Of “Harm’s Way,” a 1978 script, he states, “The play takes on working class and political topics without the typical rhetoric of those subjects. “It’s the first play [of mine] I really kind of liked. I ended up writing about violence and guns in the vast, empty Midwest.  Everybody gets angry at everybody else. I was once told that anger is emotion searching for an idea.”

Sound abstract?  Obtuse? An exercise in abstraction for the sake of abstraction?  If you said, “Yes,” then you agree with those who respond in the positive to the convoluted natured of Wellman’s plays. 

At the start of the “Harm’s Way,” a young boy is chased around the stage by his mother who has a sandwich in her hand.  Abbreviated dialogue from the script is:

MOTHER: Ugly kid. Eat!
CHILD: Witch. Go stuff it.
MOTHER: Watch your mouth.
CHILD: Don’t want that crap. It’s crap.
MOTHER: Good American cheese. Real baloney, on Wonder bread. Eat it. Or else.
CHILD: Crap.
MOTHER: You don’t eat it and I’ll whip you good.
CHILD: Crap sandwich.
MOTHER: You don’t eat that sandwich and I’ll kill you good. I’ll teach you, little son of a bitch.
She shoots him.  [I repeat . . . SHE SHOOTS HIM]   
MOTHER: No respect. . .

The play takes place in a mythical American West.  It centers on the adventures of Santouche [“Sans-touché” or untouchable], a very angry man who walks around with a loaded gun in his hand.   We follow his tale with no ordered references to time or place, just a series of scenes, which happen.
What we see and hear are a chaotic stream of shoot-outs, often with little explanation or purpose, set in a kind of circus sideshow imagery.  By the end, more bodies pile up than in a Greek tragedy.

Each scene contains the phrase, “It’s all part of the show,” but we are never sure of the referent for “it’s.”

The con-con production, under the direction of Clyde Simon, is about an hour long, well-paced and makes the most of what the playwright has given the director and cast:  Monica Zach, Robert Branch, Michael Regnier, Brian Westerley, Hilary Wheelock, Carrie Williams and Gideon Lorete, who are supported by a group of musicians:  Wesley Allen, Joseph Milan and Beau Reinker who sing, pluck away and fill in as characters in the tale.

Capsule Judgement: “Harm’s Way” looks at the underbelly of humanity, people who engender no positive emotional connection for many, in a frame work that follows Wellman’s abstract writing style.  If that’s your thing, then you’ll appreciate the happenings.  

“Harm’s Way” runs through April 15, 2017, at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to