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November 12th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Mayannah, Rosemary, and Ani prepare to dine.

Went and saw Brainpeople at convergence last Thursday night.  I must admit that I don’t know how to feel about it.  I take that back, I do know how I feel about it; I just…as I so often do…question whether my impression is correct.  I suppose it’s silly, really.  After all, one’s impression is one’s own and needn’t seek any external validation; however, one can be off-base in the variables one puts in one’s calculations, and that is what I fear.  Regardless, this is just an avoidably long way around saying that I thought it was a not very good play. In fact, a bad play.

While no expert, I am familiar with Jose Rivera: References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, Marisol, and I listened and laughed as he described the insults and stupidities endured as a Hollywood screenwriter in Tales from the Script. So I am still a bit shocked.

First, let me disclaim a few things.  The convergence production was very good:  I’m assuming (having not seen it anywhere else).  That is, the set was sumptuous.  The atmosphere was wonderful (lighting, sound).  It was storming when I went to see it and you could hear the rain pounding on the roof which added to the eerie effect of the thing; and the effect of the dystopian environment and fear of a police state was effective.  I thought the acting was terrific, especially that of Kristi Little, which frankly blew me away and was worth the whole trip.  Her portrayal of Rosemary, and her deft powerful shifts through multiple personalities was both terrifying and exhilarating.

The problem I have is with the play itself.  And it could be that I’m in this phase where I’m obsessing with Eric Overmyer and Len Jenkin and the Wooster Group and Megan Terry and reading Brecht and Artaud and Ionesco, in short, dealing with playwrights who are challenging form and structure and authorial position.  But, I was just shocked that here is a very, very good playwright who has three women on the stage and the majority of the play is monologs.  That was just flabbergasting.  And one significant piece of the play has a major character (Rosemary) catatonic on a chair periodically chirping pieces of a rather predictable sentence.  I just could not believe that I was watching a Jose Rivera play (whose past character lists include a coyote , a cat, madmen, guardian angels).  I couldn’t believe that Rivera would handle three characters like playwriting students in a 101 class.  And to make the characters more effective within this stultifying mold, he just gave them quirks which seemed more contrived to me than anything fundamentally real at their core.  I felt, more than once, that the choices Rivera made were intentional and contrived (not developing naturally out of the writing) and pushed in place to serve the plot’s outcome, not, again, any sort of organic meaning from the writing or meaning that rises up out of the unconscious.

The plot is that one woman (Mayannah, played by Laurel Johnson) lures two other women (Rosemary and Ani, played by Laura Starnik) to her house with the offer of $20,000 if they can make it through dinner.  This is one of the plots.  The other plot uses the literal presumption that you are what you eat to suggest that you literally can experience the memories, feelings, etc., of whatever creature it is that you have consumed; this theory is key to Mayannah whose parents were eaten by a Tiger when she was 8 years old.  By eating Tiger every year at this strange dinner, Mayannah hopes to be able to find her parents via one of her guests.  In this case, Rosemary, whose multiple personalities make her susceptible, apparently, to channeling Mayannah’s consumed parents.  Interesting as all this is, I could only see a re-hashing of Hollywood plots.  Since every pitch for a screenplay is supposed to be a combination of two movies in some way, Brainpeople is House on Haunted Hill meets Altered States.

One of my professors, David Todd, has mentioned in passing, and I’m paraphrasing, that once you become a playwright and sit through enough plays there comes a point when you can pretty much see how a play is going to play out right off the bat.  And there are two outcomes for this: one is that you become very cynical about what you’re seeing and the second is that you begin to develop a taste for stuff that really challenges you in new ways–or stuff that is surprising or occasionally you get surprised by more traditional fare that is really, really good.  Unfortunately, with this play, I found myself in the cynical position.  It was very hard for me to be there after a certain point.  Once I realized how this play was working I was just dispirited. Dispirited, I think, by the fact that meaning was going to be handed to me in this utterly conventional way.  There was a clock on a table on the set facing the audience and I found myself staring at the hands while time passed in five minute increments.  The only place that really blew me away was when Rosemary told her story and there I was overcome by Little’s acting which was just flat out great.  I’m certain, too, that some credit is due Clyde Simon’s direction in keeping Little’s transformations on edge like that.  Starnik had her moments as well, describing her love affair with Mayannah’s father through the television, which demonstrated glimpses of Rivera’s sense of humor and the bizarre, which were unfortunately missing from most of the play. Johnson got a moment, too, describing her first communion gone awry.  Regardless, other than those few points, the seams and mechanics of Brainpeople, the formal strategies and plot points, were just way too visible and the rotation of monologs among the women, some of which nearly turned the characters into cartoons, were just disappointing.

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