Humorless, Heavy-Handed Spider Gives Audience Arachnophobia

Dream of the Red Spider by Ronald Ribman directed by Ron Daniels at the American Repertory Theatre through March 13

The world is dark, lonely, and savage. God is "a cold shadow," as we are informed by the surly protagonist, who moans he "could have forgiven Him for everything but not existing." Painfully maudlin commentary unfortunately comprises the bulk of this ill-fated production of Ronald Ribman's Dream of the Red Spider. If only it had been written with a sense of humor or perspective, maybe this play would have been tolerable. But the overblown dialogue, sparse plot, and half-hearted acting make this performance dull, dull, dull.

To be fair, most of the fault lies with the script itself, the most puzzling aspect being the decision to produce it in the first place. It attempts to bring us into the world of yet another "unnamed South or Latin American country," ruled by a dictator who embodies the nation's hollow state of greed and corruption. This El Commandante Gutierrez (Jonathan Fried) enters trailing a long tube of flickering lights behind him that conducts electrodes into his mechanical frame, operated by the real, unseen dictator in a far-off control room. His counterpart is Uyttersprot (Jack Willis), an embittered flunky who plots to bring down sainted Don Emilio Valverde (Alvin Epstein), the resident intellectual conscience. The means of his destruction will be the cheap and lovely Violet (Maggie Rush), an entertainer of sorts. It does not come as a surprise to learn that Violet, ungrateful and naive, was formerly employed in a fish factory before her rescue by Uyttersprot, and that her parents work in the nitrate mines. As it does to many other characters in this play, heavy-handed stereotyping effectively and lamentably trivializes Violet's plight.

The insulting level of metaphor is sustained not only in the script but also in some of the direction. Men in large white spacesuits wander in and out during set changes, accompanied by billows of mechanical fog. These creatures are the exterminators sent by the government to ward off the plague of red spiders that is reported to be approaching the city. Later, a large red spider is lit and throbbing above carnival dancers in a comical dance scene that probably was meant to be erotic. These and other elaborate ploys, while potentially meaningful, are more likely to make you giggle than anything else.

The actors seem to be aware of the play's shortcomings and act as if embarrassed by the needless spectacle. Willis, who plays Uyttersprot, does a relatively good job and is quite believable by the final act. But this finale, while faster paced than the rest of the show and better acted, is not worth the wait. Also highlighting this scene is The Cripple, played by Royal Miller, whose performance is the most energetic and convincing of the entire cast. Although his part is small, his pathetic state is far more terrible and human than than those of the others. The Commandante Rosas and his sister are amusing as would-be usurpers, but Candy Bucklcy as the sister is woefully miscast as a sniveling toadie. Her usually winning brashness is out of place here, one of the many incongruities signaling a lopsided and strangely careless production.

As the bulk of the play is weighty conversation, the characters are often left with nothing noteworthy to do. Again, this could be the intention, even the central focus of the Dream of the Red Spider, but the critical flatness and distance that can lift a farce above its banal and stereotypical underpinnings never surface. The author's despair and alienation are evident, but we are never given any reason for his whiny melancholia. It is a shame that the truly complex and harrowing aspects of life under a dictatorship are not examined in depth, for instance as in Ariel Dorfman's recent Death of the Maiden, instead of being subjected to this shallow evaluation and empty philosophizing. Instead of entering his world it is tempting to sit back and snicker at it.