Sometimes, no matter how avant-garde a play’s language or structure may be, it can be reduced to a simple thesis statement. Basil Kreimendahl’s Sidewinders, for example, now premiering with the Cutting Ball Theater, boils down to “Binary gender distinctions are overrated.” And Diana Amsterdam’s Carnival Round the Central Figure, produced by Symmetry Theatre Company at Live Oak Theatre, declares in no uncertain terms that people should accept death as part of life and not pretend it isn’t happening.
Winner of the 2013 Rella Lossy Playwright Award to support a Bay Area theater’s production of a new a play by an emerging playwright, Sidewinders has been in the works at Cutting Ball for some time, coming out of the company’s Risk Is This… festival of experimental plays this past February. But the play’s theme of gender queerness has become more topical in the last two weeks than the theater could have imagined, when an “agender” teenager was set on fire on a bus in Oakland for wearing a skirt. It’s not just an interesting topic for a theater company to be taking on right now; it’s also an important one.
I only wish it were done better.
An absurdist play, Sidewinders owes a great debt to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Two aimless wanderers find themselves adrift in an unknown wasteland, milling around and arguing among themselves, until their tedium is interrupted by a colorful and commanding personality and that person’s faithful servant. In this case it takes place in the Old West (a big open space with clouds painted on the walls and fluffy papier-mâché clouds hanging from the ceiling, as depicted in Michael Locher’s delightfully evocative set), and the wanderers are two gender-ambiguous cowpokes whose (stolen) train has run out of track. Dressed in an androgynous mixture of army uniform, lipstick and earrings, Bailey is particularly uncertain as to what his/her genitalia might be. A blustering, easily agitated wannabe gunslinger in buckskins, Dakota demands to examine Bailey’s goods down there, but after looking just avoids the subject. Even the words for the nether bits are obscured, replaced with cartoony vocal sound effects. “Who am I supposed to fuck?” Bailey wails.
There’s some interesting wordplay going on in Kreimendahl’s dialogue (“with me manifesting my destiny to solve your organ mystery”), but you’d never know it in director M. Graham Smith’s world premiere staging, or at least not for what seems like a very long time until other characters arrive. Both of the leads are goofy in an empty and unfocused way, with a lot of gaping facial expressions, Sara Moore overplaying the ineffectually sputtering Dakota and DavEnd limply underplaying the hapless Bailey. The more they harp on how they don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or where to go from there, the more you can’t help wondering what you’re doing there.
It’s only when Donald Currie enters as Sandy that the play perks up and actually becomes interesting. And Sandy makes quite an entrance. Riding in hooded and seemingly asleep or dead atop a wooden toy wagon, Sandy arrives in a fancy gown with a disturbingly lopsided padded bosom and extra hands hanging all over. (Heidi Leigh Hanson’s costume is a marvel.) Though Sandy seemingly represents as a posh society dame and claims to have borne 32 children, s/he’s referred to as “it” by the lost pair of cowpokes. Sandy speaks floridly with great relish and delights in putting on a performance, with props delivered by disembodied hands poking out of the miniature wagon. Sandy acts out a tale of two tapirs, one of several nonsense parables told in the play that ultimately stick to the theme of fluid identity and in-betweenness. Currie’s Sandy is riveting—flamboyant, impish and commanding all at once—and elevates the whole production when s/he’s onstage.
Fortunately, hardly any sooner has Sandy left the stage than the hitherto unseen servant emerges. Norman Muñoz is immaculately poised and somewhat snobbish as Sam, glumly pining for his lost employer and not seeing the point of going on after Sandy’s gone (which is understandable).
The plot thread about Bailey’s identity conundrum is actually pretty interesting, as is the way Kreimendahl expresses it: “You could make my nothing a something? You could give me a this or a that?” It’s a pity that it takes so much work on the part of the viewer to see past the shaky delivery to glean what’s interesting about it.
The performances are one of the main reasons to see Symmetry Theatre Company’s Carnival Round the Central Figure, which boasts an impressive assemblage of terrific local actors. But Diana Amsterdam’s play is fascinating in its own right. The “central figure” of the title is a bedridden hospital patient, chalk-white and wasted away, and there is indeed a sort of carnival going on around him. In fact, as the audience enters Berkeley’s Live Oak Theatre for Symmetry’s Bay Area premiere, the other performers keep passing by juggling or doing other circus-style acts while bouncy calliope music plays. (The sound design is by Steve Bage.)
Once the play actually starts, that’s the end of the literal circusy stuff, but there’s still a commotion of constant activity around the patient in artistic director Chloe Bronzan’s lively staging. And most of it seems devoted to convincing him that he’s not dying. His wife Sheila (a desperately upbeat Lizzie Calogero) natters on nonstop about banal domestic matters and tries to convince herself, him and everyone else that he’s looking better when he’s clearly hanging on by a thread. Velina Brown is smoothly persuasive as a self-help pop psychologist who insists hilariously that just because everybody has always died doesn’t mean they still have to, as long as they’re stupid, stubborn, conceited, greedy and competitive enough to believe that they’re the one who will finally beat death.
Just as much of a huckster is a TV preacher (a delightfully over-the-top and charismatic Michael Gene Sullivan) insisting that you have to choose life by choosing Jesus, so if your health is failing it must be because of your sinfulness. He’s accompanied by a chipper and pricelessly suggestible gospel choir (Brown, Calogero and El Beh). Steve Budd and Amber Collins Crane are an achingly grieving couple whose teenage daughter is dying, and whom the preacher has brought onto TV to testify to it all being their kid’s own fault.
Quietly fretful and unassuming at first, Marissa Keltie’s Kate becomes the lone and powerful voice against all this denial with her simple but insistent question, “Doesn’t everybody die?” The more Greg Crane as her uptight boyfriend (and everybody else) tries to keep her from making waves, the more insistent she is that this is all terribly wrong.
The lone witness to all this is the patient, Paul, who’s so pale and drawn that he looks like Voldemort. As played by Michael Patrick Gaffney, Paul is in a daze and seemingly in constant pain, staring wordlessly and gapingly at everything, from time to time emitting a moan or a shriek.
The scene constantly shifts around this central figure, from relatively straightforward conversations happening in the room around him to much more fanciful, larger-than-life scenes. Curiously, some of the scenes happen more than once, only playing out differently the second time around. That’s only one of the bizarre elements whose purpose in the play remains mysterious. What’s the significance of El Beh as a nameless nurse coaxing blood out of the patient’s veins with sinister-sexy sweet talk? What’s up with the blank-masked legions of death-deniers? As puzzling as some of these elements are, the wild theatricality and sometimes raucous humor of this three-ring circus raging beyond all reason against the dying of the light is what makes it so entertaining and makes it more than just a simple memento mori.
Sidewinders: Show #119 of 2013, attended November 2.
Carnival Round the Central Figure: Show #122 of 2013, attended November 3.