How many good ideas does it take to make a play? The theatrical cookbooks suggest it’s not their quantity but the way their combination enhances the general flavor. Since every playwright must calibrate based on the ingredients at hand, there are endless opportunities for things to go wrong. An excess of compelling themes can signal an avoidance of what’s really at stake in a drama, while a deficiency may indicate a far too superficial approach.
Carson Kreitzer’s Self Defense, or death of some salesmen has a multitude of thoughtful perspectives on the true-life subject of Florida prostitute-turned-serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The problem, however, is that Kreitzer’s fictionalized treatment never establishes a clear path. Socioeconomic insights attempt to illuminate a figure more accustomed to tabloid sensation than political analysis. Yet even the most progressive intentions can’t compensate for a muddled dramatic core.
Jolene Palmer (a fairly convincing Lynne McCollough) introduces herself to us from her death-row jail cell. Accused of brutally murdering seven of her johns, the prematurely middle-aged hooker claims her crimes were committed in self-defense. Not the most persuasive of arguments, it must be said. (As my feminist companion remarked, “Two or three I could understand. But seven!”) Though the writing fails to bring the convicted killer to emotional life, we’re encouraged to see things from her depressing worldview—a corrective to the pervasive disregard that apparently was her lifelong fate.
Though Self Defense doesn’t sentimentalize or condone, it demonstrates a disproportionate amount of care in conveying Jolene’s side of the story. The other characters— a collection straight out of Jerry Springer—have a cartoonish quality that doesn’t lend credibility to Kreitzer’s polemical treatment. And it’s not just the redneck police captain (Stephen Bradbury), whose interrogation of prostitutes involves the demanding of sexual freebies. Chastity (Carolyn DeMerice) and Daytona (Melle Powers) are hookers who seem more like acting-school parodies, while Jolene’s lesbian lover Lu (Carolyn Baeumler) is basically a slow-witted cipher in a baseball hat.
Unfolding in seven scenes, the action jumps haphazardly between past and present. Worse, the play can’t decide whether it wants to focus on Jolene or the way her saga has attracted kooks with their own ideological agendas. Incidental characters, like a religious nut determined to save Jolene’s soul, swirl about like circus distractions. Perhaps a Brechtian impulse fuels Kreitzer’s disruptive dramaturgy, but the effect is primarily one of head scratching—especially when the actors playing Chastity and Daytona transform into angels.
Director Randy White compounds the herky-jerky style with a hyperactive staging that trusts superfluous video decoration more than his cast. At times, his actors are required to perform scenes from the barely visible corners of Here’s tricky mainstage. No surprise, though, that the production is as out of focus as the play.
Unlike Kreitzer’s jigsaw of dogmatic points, Ricardo A. Bracho’s A to B (one of three new plays in INTAR’s “Ties That Bind” series) tries to spin an entire drama out of one issue—the doomed romance between two men, one of them straight. Make that straight-ish. While there’s certainly tension inherent in the situation, the playwright doesn’t delve much beyond the hetero-homo divide. In fact, his characters are largely defined by their attitudes toward their sexuality, which, no matter how true to life, doesn’t make them particularly fascinating company.
The names of the two lovers, A and B, are symptomatic of the problem. To sustain our interest, Bracho’s two-hander requires flesh-and-blood figures, not mere letters. A (Leith Burke) DJ’s at a gay club: Though he prefers the opposite sex, he’s clearly not fanatical about it. B (Carlos Alberto Valencia) is a Latino homo with a lyrical streak and the hots for A. Though racial backgrounds and biographical details are inventoried, the two characters never take on the full human dimensions that make any intimate relationship a portal onto the poignant complexity of life. Though there’s plenty of erotic shenanigans to keep things lively, the play seems increasingly like a thin anecdote stretched uncomfortably over two acts.
Directed by filmmaker Ela Troyano, the production interposes a film of two other men in a more tender relationship. Cinematic sequences feature long romantic walks on the beach, hand-holding on the couch, and, finally, a betrayal of the bisexual kind A and B ultimately confront. But for all the obvious parallels, the movie seems at best a diversion from the vacancy at the heart of Bracho’s drama.
Though the talented Burke renders A with sympathetic intelligence and Valencia infuses B with easy street-charm, both actors are limited by their narrowly conceived roles. Locked into a claustrophobic setup, A to B refuses to grant its characters the autonomy to unfurl their own emergent thoughts, attitudes, and feelings—that realm of discovery that makes the stage such an ideal source of contemplative play.