Home/Sick; Speaking in Tongues
By Myron Meisel
Before Occupy Wall Street
Most of American society tends to regard terrorism as a contemporary phenomenon, part of our unshakeable conviction in the uniqueness of our own experience. In fact, terrorism has been a constant in world politics since at least the French Revolution, inevitably perceived in terms ranging from ignoble to glorious. So The Assembly’s production of Home/Sick, a reimagining of the Weather Underground experience from 1969 to 1978, now running at the Odyssey Theatre, may play for different audiences as a cautionary tale, an exasperating inspirational example, or even (sentimentality be damned) nostalgia. How could I help but smile when the activists chant Mao’s “Dare to Struggle! Dare to Win!” the identical year we used the same axiom as our college football cheer?
(It’s instructive to notice that playing on an adjacent Odyssey stage, O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, close to 100 years old, depicts the protagonist, filled with unrequited rage, ineptly eager to join a movement to blow up any symbol of capitalist exploitation.)
A New York City theater collective, The Assembly fashions its pieces collaboratively, in this case with all of the company’s six actors, a director, a pair of dramaturgs and others writing and devising the historical tapestry of hothouse intrigue and radical commitment. Home/Sick was first produced there in 2011, and here in Los Angeles, Home/Sick makes an especially apt bookend to the Odyssey’s first signature show, The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. Ironically, while in that famous circus of a case, there was no conspiracy at all (as Abbie Hoffman put it, “We couldn’t agree on lunch”), here we are witness to the psychological and practical intricacies of a conspiracy in process: with all its idealism and dogma, frustrations, interpersonal tensions, symbolic violent actions intended to injure property but not people. Add to those qualities relentless self-doubt and enforced auto-criticisms, all in pursuit of revolutionary transformation.
Inescapably, there are echoes of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, and most piquantly, of Jean-Luc Godard’s somewhat forgotten 1967 take-off on the Dostoevsky, La Chinoise (which opened in the United States just weeks before the 1968 French student-labor uprising and months before that year’s National Democratic convention). Godard lurched between sympathy and satire in exploring his Maoist students propelling themselves toward warfare at home, and while Home/Sick inevitably closely identifies with the goals and values of its ferociously motivated zealots, it still remains sadly conscious of how human frailties doom their enterprise.
I lived in Chicago in 1969 through 1972, where and when the bulk of the show’s action occurs, and have vivid (and some faded) memories of many of the events alluded to that occur offstage, including glancing acquaintances with at least a couple of the loosely fictionalized characters portrayed. I recall encountering Howard Machtinger walking alone on the University of Chicago quadrangle near the end of the long local winter, just expelled from the graduate sociology program after helping lead an extended occupation of the Administration Building. I asked him what he was going to do. Morose and disconsolate, he earnestly explained that he could think of only bad options to choose among.
(One of the actor-creators reveals in the individual monologue allotted to each of them that he was inspired as a high school student of Machtinger’s, after his release from custody, admitting that his mentor at first thought doing a stage work on the Weather Underground might be too prone to romanticizing the faction, when many other groups had contributed so much more to progress.)
The Assembly has commendably researched thoroughly, and while there is an occasional factual inaccuracy (Patrice Lumumba was first prime minister of the independent Congo, not the president), some missteps could plausibly be regarded as part of the characterizations. As a representative fiction, compressed for dramatic point (and bracingly conscious of its theatricality), Home/Sick also convincingly hearkens back to the artistic experimentation of the era, conjuring up wisps of The Living Theatre, The Performing Garage and, more distantly, the Europeans.
As illustrated by La Chinoise, and more bluntly in Koji Wakamatsu’s 2007 United Red Army, the hostility toward the system necessarily manifests itself in internal manipulation and bullying, inexorably amplified by the paranoia not merely concerning external threats but fear of internal deviation from doctrine, generally regarded as betrayal. Mostly, as we stay underground in the room with them all, we witness their relentless rejection of any tactical disagreement as apostasy. Sexism innate to the period is not scanted, though neither does it dominate, as the women by necessity have raised their consciousness and with it, an empowering assertiveness. (Nothing more equalizes the sexes than shortcomings of character, save perhaps the bombing of buildings.)
Home/Sick does run on too long, as the trajectory ineluctably parallels those of addiction stories, in that as motivations collapse, the dramatic arc bends towards stasis. Nevertheless, the extended intermission, which encourages the audience to join in epoch-accurate dance steps of irresistible charm, definitely leavens the downward spiral to disintegration and disillusion.
To those who will experience the spectacle as an extended flashback, as well as those who are exploring these events afresh, The Assembly provides a valuable experience. For myself, I have felt throughout this new century a complete befuddlement that more of this generation, armed with superior communication and organizing devices, and equally abhorrent grievances, has not taken to the streets in protest or in more aggressive action. I can’t tell if Home/Sick will prove an inspiration or discouragement. It is determined to be honest, which is probably the first step to getting anywhere.
An Australian How the Other Half Loves
Australian Theatre Company, formed by local Aussie talent to showcase their national theater literature, returns to the Matrix after their successful 2014 debut, Holding the Man, with a double presentation (not in repertory) of two major opuses playing alternately through a four week run: Brendan Cowell’s Ruben Guthrie, and the more internationally known Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell. The latter was adapted by the playwright for Ray Lawrence’s 2001 award-winning film, Lantana, which starred Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey. (Bovell’s screenwriting credits range from Strictly Ballroom to A Most Wanted Man.)
In its adaptation to the screen, however, Bovell necessarily scrapped the essential theatrical element of his original 1996 play: the use of four actors to play nine roles, the multiple casting not only adding shadings of irony, nuance and rhyming motifs but also structurally mirroring the action. Sometimes parallel, sometimes simultaneously, three different combinations of characters intersect and interact. It’s intricately planned and lends the story a mathematical schema that encourages both unexpected identification and distancing objectivity.
It begins with two would-be adulterous couples in two tawdry hotel rooms overlapping often identical dialogue. Of course, each turns out to be with the spouse of the other. Bovell cleverly organizes most scenes as an encounter between strangers, other than single scenes of each married couple hurtling toward separation. Everyone is united by their emotional isolation and their consequent hapless search for intimacy (or in a few instances, terror of it).
My hunch is that the play seemed far more innovative when new, and since its quasi-abstract dramatic organization no longer seems particularly difficult, many of its valid, piercing insights now have less novelty value. A very good play has aged into a merely good one.
The quartet of players – Matt Passmore, Tina Kobas, Kym Wilson and Jamie Irvine – are all admirably able, subtly differentiating their different parts rather than emphasizing contrasts. The web of interactions evokes a genuine feel of ensemble reflecting a society.
For both shows, ATC has enlisted the finest design team: a single functional set by John Iacovelli, lighting by Jared Sayeg, sound by Cricket S. Myers and costumes by Kate Bergh.
Most importantly, while we here are exposed to a fair array of English language drama from Britain, Ireland, and even Canada, representation of the range of Australian (and for that matter, New Zealand) plays has been sparse, and ATC’s mission could not be more welcome.
RECOMMENDED: Home/Sick, Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 477-2055, http://odysseytheatre.com, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m., Monday June 27 at 8 p.m., Wednesday June 22 & 29 at 8 p.m., through July 3. Running time: Two hours, thirty-five minutes (with extended intermission).
Speaking in Tongues (alternating with performances of Ruben Guthrie), The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 960-4443, www.AustralianTheatreCompany.com, Thursday June 16 at 8 p.m., Saturday June 18 at 4 p.m., Sunday June 19 at 7 p.m., Tuesday June 21 at 8 p.m., Friday June 24 at 8 p.m., Saturday June 25 at 8 p.m, Sunday June 26 at 3 p.m., Monday June 27 at 8 p.m., Thursday June 30 at 8 p.m., Saturday July 2nd at 8 p.m. Running time: Two hours (with intermission).