Sunday, March 19, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Explaining Things" (on Albee's At Home at the Zoo)


explaining things
by Douglas Messerli

Edward Albee At Home at the Zoo / the performance that Howard Fox and  I saw, presented by the Deaf West Theatre, was at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, Lovelace Studio Theater, on March 16, 2017

Over the last many years the Deaf West Theatre Company (DWT) has presented several wonderful works in American Sign Language in conjunction with spoken words, including their memorable adaptation of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—performed first at DWT’s own intimate theater and later at the Mark Taper Forum before being transferred to Broadway’s American Airlines Theater at the Roundabout—garnering two Tony nominations.  Their 2014-15 production of the musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, presented at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills (see My Year 2015)—which also moved on to Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, again receiving several Tony nominations—was one of the highlights for me of that year.
      Now Deaf West Theater has turned their attention to a very different kind of writer in Edward Albee, undertaking the daunting task of performing two of Albee’s mostly “talk” plays, the playwright’s first play The Zoo Story, which late in his life Albee paired with a prequel about Peter’s home life, melding them together (and demanding that all larger companies perform them that way) as At Home at the Zoo
      Director Coy Midddlebrook, has taken this pairing quite literally, performing them in “chronological” order, with the prequel first to be followed by the notorious encounter between Peter and Jerry in the park. Actually, I might have preferred to seen these two works done in the opposite order, backing up the stunningly absurdist early play, The Zoo Story—a play I so revered that I republished it as the first work in Mac Wellman’s and my From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995—with its more literal explanation of events in the “at home” segment. But then, I don’t think the later written section is a very good play, and am disappointed in Albee’s decision to recast his remarkable early work—the reaction of an old man seeking to explain things.
      The entire issue of At Home at the Zoo, is Peter’s inability to lead anything but a safe and careful life, with two daughters, two cats, two birds, and a wife who he safely loves as he tucks himself away at work on editing large academic texts, currently reading the most boring book in the world, but, which he quips, might also be one of the most important. His wife, Ann (Amber Zion), is still in love with her husband Peter (Troy Kotsur), despite the years of detachment. But recently she has been having difficulty in sleeping, and has imaginings of hacking off her breasts and acting in strange ways, such as walking to the apartment lobby and exposing herself. 
      Aghast, Peter cannot comprehend her “imaginings,” and wonders what has happened to the good life they have worked to develop. Gradually Albee reveals that the major problem is that Peter has become a domesticated animal, a bit like the family’s birds and cats, with none of the wild animal human desires which help to make life exciting, and Ann is bored by their quiet shell of a life.
       Set designer Karyl Newman has subtly reiterated these issues by placing, at the sides of their comfy apartment, decorative lines of a cage, suggesting that even in this family’s normalcy, there are elements of wild animal urges which Peter refuses to face, only in this afternoon conversation that back in his college days he had actually given in to just such urges at a fraternity party. 
      Yet, even after, he cannot comprehend the ideas Ann is trying to express, and leaves her in confusion, determining to retreat to his favorite bench in Central Park to read a book.
      It is there that he encounters the wild beast, Jerry (a role, here split by two actors, Russell Harvard and Tyrone Giordano; I believe we saw Russell Harvard in the role). Through Jerry’s frontal assault of the quiet Peter, his outright challenges, his attempts to “get to know” the reticent reader, and his increasingly disturbing and violent tales—particularly the one about his nasty landlady and her threatening dog—gradually verge into an outright attack as he demands ownership of Peter’s bench. Along with Albee’s subtle (and not so-subtle) distinctions of class, and the homoerotic overtones (again, sometimes not as subtle as we might be led to believe), the conversation eventually ends with the unexpected murder of Jerry by Peter; in short, where Ann has failed, Jerry succeeds, quite successful, in bringing out the animal in the now utterly confused Peter, told by his victim to pick up his book and run, and, in so doing, becomes almost a sacrificial lamb to verify Peter’s bestiality. By the end, it is clear that Peter is more moved by the male relationship he has suddenly developed with Jerry than his more standard heterosexual one his has with Ann.
     One might argue that these became Albee’s standard themes throughout his career: how the animal in us was always ready to break out at any moment. In numerous of his plays, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and The Goat, we can observe these same dynamics, empty banter and bored conversation quickly turning into violent threats which result in a behavior that shows we are much closer to the animal world that we suspect.
     But the art of Albee lies in the early pretense, in each play, that we have weaned ourselves from our bestial natures, representing the ordinariness of our lives just before we bear our fangs.
     Shamefully, I don’t know anything about the difficulties of expressing complex concepts in American Sign Language, but it appeared to me that the deaf actors of this company were exaggerating what in the voiced roles (by Jake Eberle, Jeff Alan-Lee, and Paige Lindsey White) expressed much more subtly. Watching this play, it appeared that there was simply a problem in translation, as particularly Kotsur in the first act and even more so the actor of Jerry in the second, acted in a way that seemed overstated, literalizing a work that is mostly internal and ruminative.
     Of course, as I suggested earlier in this piece, I think the author himself also literalized this work in his additions to the original. Do we really need to know that Peter’s wife had previously goaded him into standing his ground and defending his manhood before we see Jerry slowly ground down Peter’s “high” moral values? Jeff Alan-Lee was particularly good as the voice of Jerry, almost purring out his taunts rather than visually ranting and raving as the actor of Jerry did. The bench-centered game between Jerry and Peter is almost entirely one of spoken words and voice. Except for the shocking appearance of a knife at play’s end, hardly any motion, other than a few paces back and forth, a circling of his enemy, and the final sinking into his rightful place upon the public bench, followed by a  few shoulder jabs and punches, is all Albee’s play requires.  
      I would not want to insist that Albee is simply the wrong author for a signed performance, that the process might be a bit like translating the most dense “language” poetry into Russian or Japanese; but that may be the case. I certainly admire DWT’s ambition, and was pleased to be able to see the results; and I am looking forward to their other performances. Certainly this small company has done more to give voice to deaf actors than almost any other company I know of.

Los Angeles, March 19, 2017

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