Too Many Cooks
Out Out Directed by Vincent Murphy At Theater Works through May 28
SOMEWHERE BACK in the dark recesses of Americana, in the tradition of Cotton Mather, Huckleberry Finn and Norman Rockwell, a myth sprang up about Americans. Public figures are spreading it aggressively in these days of nuclear jitters. It is the idea that in times of crisis we as people stick together, stick it out and ultimately come out on top.
A new production by Boston's TheaterWorks group shatters that myth in one enormous carnival of dance, theater, performance/installation art and new wave music. Yet Out Out is not the definitive statement on life in the nuclear age, and only partially does it manage to capture, as design coordinator Craig Sonnenberg wanted it to, "the spirit of the 80s". Out Out is the result of a collaboration by a 10-member "design team" headed by Sonnenberg, and assisted by TheaterWorks artistic directors Vincent Murphy and Tim McDonough. Perhaps it is a myth in the theater circle that in the event of a collaboration, the design team sticks it out and the production comes out on top Out Out manages to shatter that myth as well.
The play suffers from what Evelyn Waugh termed "fatal charm"; the skillfully textured hodgepodge of images which make up Out Out are particularly disappointing in the end because, to start with, they're so appealing--what advertising execs call "sexy". The cast, the audience, the designers too clearly want this work to be something special, but their creation works only in patches.
It is dangerous in these times of heightened awareness of nuclear dangers, throughout the public and in the arts as well, to attempt to make any kind of artistic statement about nuclear war. Especially in Boston, where peace organizations have been fixtures for years, and in the context of such nuclear madness dramas as the Nucleo Eclettico's The Physicists and TheaterWorks own Murder Now? it is a formidable task for any theatrical organization to attempt to add anything new to the debate, too easy to fall into the trap of familiar cliche, or to sensationalize what is by very nature sensational material.
At its best, Out Out rises above the debate--or, more precisely, descends below it, with incredible sequences in which the audience experiences some of the actual feelings that survivors of a nuclear holocaust might feel. The production has been termed an "evacuation party," and for the first hall at least, the action revolves around a purpoted nuclear attack, a pre attack evacuation and life in a bomb shelter. But at its worst Out Out becomes precious, a manipulative revival-house sing along, a punked-out version of Hair or Godspell brimming with those works' combination of rebel-with a cause naivete and we have seen the enemy and he lives in suburbia" pseudo-sophistication.
Out Out is breathtakingly brilliant when it is honest. The members of the TheaterWorks troupe, which has been plastered with awards during its two year existence are clearly very bright. It's disappointing to see this bunch use tired images and cheap shots to get a rise out of the audience, because when they do stretch their idea-laden imaginations a bit the results are striking.
AT THE START of the performance, the audience and cast are crowded in the dark in a tiny lobby outside the theater itself. Suddenly spotlights find the actors. The dialogue and an assortment of clever visual tricks begin. This goes on for quite a while, and the audience cramped and uncomfortable, begins to wonder if the entire play is to take place in this dark packed subway car of a lobby. Some people, unable to handle the jostling, nervous potential stampede, actually leave. Just as the audience begins to feel really anxious, the cast members open the doors to the theater and guide the patrons inside using the language of Civil Defense officials guiding people to a bomb shelter. This is a touch of genius. The cast doesn't talk about the horrors of crowd mentality nor does it act them out it simply produces it. Remember the stampede that killed 11 kids at a Who concert?
Another theatrical coup is the Sergeant Sacrifice anecdote. "Sergeant Sacrifice," perhaps a grim caricature of U.S.-backed Commander Suicide and his insurgents currently terrorizing Nicaragua, is given a Las Vegas-style introduction. Carried into the theater, a corpse under a blood-stained American flag, he lies still as the glitzy M. C. calls to the audience in the innuendo-filled jargon of show business. "Come on, give him a hand. He has to feel the warmth before he can get up here and perform."
The audience claps itself into a frenzy as Sergeant Sacrifice, played by Dean Gregory, comes to life, an American commando rigged up in military gear and black spandex pants. He struts and dances to the insistent thump of the disco hit "It's Raining Men" and strips down to a lame jockstrap Buttocks shaking, hips gyrating, Sergeant Sacrifice thrusts his pelvis into people's faces, makes women in the audience kiss him. Gay or straight, the audience seems enraptured by this naked maniac. He is generic sexual energy, writhing through the theater. The theatrical connection is made as never before. War is sexy, and killing people does bring some people to orgasm--just look at the military budget. In another inspired sequence, a character learning that there is to be a nuclear war phones up his best friend. "Remember that $26 I owed you? Well I've got news for you--I'm never gonna pay it." This is clever and brutally honest stuff, it may well be the petty cruelties of one man to the next which make war the hell it is.
YET FOR ALL the great moments, there are just as many disappointing ones. The cheap shots at trendy people and issues are just plain annoying--sure. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are nightmarish, but do they belong in the same litany of the horrifying as Vietnam and Hitler's diaries? Much of the material is tired and overdone--comments like "and they wanted us to grow up to like the characters on situation comedies," and "I just hated the downward mobility of the hippies" are just a little too convenient.
The set, the costumes, and even the acting techniques reflect this odd mixture of creative genius and worn-out cliche. The set itself is a three ring circus, a blaze of colors and graffiti. On one impressive wall a black-on-white silhouette of what appear to be jazz musicians and dancers on a ghetto street, the figures appear to laugh and then howl in anguish as the light changes. But another wall, a mural of floating patio furniture and suburban houses, is more than a bit obvious--it suggests a rip-off of the Rolling Stones' "Still Life" album cover. A third wall features a mural of haunting faces in the style of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
The costumes are those of punks and new romantics gone off to the circus and while some seem inspired by the recent new wave film Starstruck, others are brand new and very clever. One cast member, dancer Glenda Medeiros, wears knee-length spandex pants. Spray-painted up one inner thigh and around and down the other is the message. "There is nothing." As she rolls across the floor, spreading her legs with each tumble, the audience sees the words over and over again.
Madeiros' performance and that of fellow dancer Dean Gregory stand out as excellent. The most engaging, though, is that of Leslie Rickert, whose sense of humor and absurdity gets this production over the rocky spots. In a rendition of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" sung to the tune of the Annie hit "Tomorrow," she sings, "Yesterday, yesterday, you're only a day away." In striking contrast, one player's style is either a poor parody of Laurie Anderson or a case of performance-art plagiarism.
Out Out is worth the price of admission if only to hear the superb Larry Bangor and his band Wild Kingdom, formerly Human Sexual Response. If only the program could have cited all the music incorporated into the work--the opening bars of The Clash's "The Call-up" were clearly audible at one point, but nowhere acknowledged. It's impossible to guess how many other elements are mixed into the chaos: after all, there's an awful lot going on.
In the end, it's just that which makes Out Out so disappointing. Of course the 80s are a chaotic stew of energy and images. But a ing the spirit of the 80s than Hair did to capturing the spirit of the "60s: This work tries to deal with all the many issues that confront this generation--too many for one play. There are too many hands, too many cooks hovering over this soup. The nightmare of potential nuclear bolocaust is more than any one person or any one theater collective can tackle, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise. TheaterWork's Out Out is much more brilliant and provocative when it focuses on the big picture's tiny details--when it brings to the surface those horrifying moments which are the truth of life in wartime.