For Better or Verse

Can iambic pentameter save the world? Or at least its stages? The newly formed Inverse Theater so reckons. The group's mission statement promises "to transform world theater by developing and presenting new American verse plays" that "explore the American-global experience through comedy, tragedy, history, and unfound genres."

If that's not grandiose enough, this rescue mission is going to be accomplished by a single playwright: Kirk Wood Bromley, Inverse's artistic director. No wonder the company's nearly three-and-a-half-hour premiere production is all about hubris and self-involvement.

The hero, Griffin Hunter, is the UN undersecretary for disarmament, just about to convince the world's governments to sign a nonproliferation treaty. But his lofty goal is thwarted by an arms dealer named Rockwell, who peppers his verse with Arabic phrases and covets Hunter's wife, a French actress. One of his henchmen, Leveret, is an old pal of Hunter's who took a murder rap for him in Malaysia and is now torn between love and resentment— oft-expressed in soul-searching soliloquies. Hunter's enemies hoist him on his own petard, setting an old lover in his path to sway him from domestic— and international— constancy.

With textbook fidelity, the play employs the devices of Jacobean tragedy: an undelivered letter, a play-within-the-play, a bed-trick, a final scene strewn with corpses. But its plotting is pure pop spy caper— and thus women function primarily as prizes for male heroics. They slink around in skintight costumes pining for their man, and there's even some gratuitous female nudity. For Bromley is not really interested in the politics of arms trading or the "American-global experience," but in Hunter's lewinskying: it's his wayward lust— and the duplicity it demands— that propel his presumably tragic downfall. Ho-hum.

Bromley does loop together some fine phrases— "He starts getting smart," says a thug about a diplomat he's just shot dead, "so I dumb him down." What's more, the verse does force us to listen in the theater, and that's a vanishing pleasure these days. But Bromley doesn't draw a line between true invention and sophomoric caricature. For instance, Hunter banters with his wife: "If a lover lies, his lie is true love,/As to his love he lies to get his love,/About his love he lies to keep his love,/And on his love he lies to please his love,/So, let your lover lie— he lies for your love."

As Hunter, Joshua Spafford almost pulls it off. He's the only actor in the company who seems comfortable enough with verse— both in terms of vocal technique and in understanding how it externalizes emotional meaning— to inhabit the world of the play. The others seem confused about whether they're in a work that takes itself too seriously, or in a campy burlesque. As Rockwell, Alan Benditt merely shouts himself hoarse. As Leveret, Matthew Maher— fresh from a deep and disturbing performance in David Hancock's Ark of the Lost Tattoo— simply skulks. Often it's difficult to understand him. It seems almost cruel that a man with a lisp is expected to deliver lines like "You stand, Mr. Scheckel, on the cusp of catastrophe."

The bigger disappointment is that Inverse seems to think that the way to develop a contemporary poetic drama is to imitate a 400-year-old form. That was a pretty damned good form, of course, but because it grew out of particular historical and local circumstances, it's not enough to duplicate it, no matter how fine a rhyming couplet you can muster.

To write such verse is, sure, a noble rarity,

But hard to do without becoming parody.

 
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