KPBS AIRDATE: June 9, 1993
There’s myth, and there’s hard, cold reality. You can get a heavy dose of both on San Diego stages this month.
Never was there a theater company more aptly named than Sledgehammer. That encapsulates their approach to almost everything. Last year, they beleaguered our senses with a large-scale production of “The Saint Plays” by Erik Ehn. The match was so good they’ve given the playwright another airing, this time paired with a lesser-known, early play by poet William Butler Yeats. Billed as The Battle of the Irish Poets, this evening of theater is …. well, perhaps poetic, but hardly satisfying.
“The Shadowy Waters” was written by Yeats in 1906. In the Sledgehammer production, what with the interminable dripping of water, the hard-fought Irish accents, the periodic shouting and the actors repeatedly facing upstage to deliver lines, it’s a wonder you can get anything out of the lyrical, poetic piece at all.
Add to that the fact that, for both plays, if you’re sitting on the right side of the theater, your view is totally blocked any number of times. Thank God for the program notes, which sort of let you know what’s going on…
Yeats’ plays, like his poetry, are steeped in symbolism, but if you can’t discern the words, you can barely interpret the multiple meanings. “No one can live without a myth,” said Yeats. But you can live very well without this one in this form.
The second act of the Sledgehammer evening starts out showing off all the best of the company. In Erik Ehn’s “New,” Sledge regular Bruce McKenzie is playing another one of those wide-eyed, disaffected stumblers he does so well. Shana Wride is terrifically quirky as Curt’s equally off-center new mate, now that he’s dumped his children and weirdo wife, played weirdly by Dana Hooley. But the offspring keep coming back, and soon their mother, although dead, sprouts antlers and the kids multiply through the back of a beetle.
What starts out simple and stylized and wonderful, with yet another marvelously imaginative set by Robert Brill (with the help of Amy Shock), degenerates into a morass of mythic symbols, which has both play and production tripping all over each other. Writer Erik Ehn and Sledge director Scott Feldsher are a pair. But each potentiates the other’s tendency to excess and dense complexity, where clarity and focus would serve so much better.
That’s on the mythical side of the street. Now, for hyper-reality, we turn to “A Piece of My Heart” by Shirley Lauro, produced by a company whose moniker doesn’t match its production: Sweetooth Comedy Theatre. Comic, this is not.
The West coast premiere is a series of vignettes, personal reports and revelations from women who served in Vietnam. It’s only recently been revealed that there are absolutely no counts of how many women actually went to Vietnam. That’s incredible. And presumably, their stories are also incredible.
But in this play, there is so much that is like the male Vets’ reports that most of it sounds almost cliché. There is one tale of a gang rape. And one instance of lesbianism. One intelligence officer is trivialized and ignored. But otherwise, it’s too familiar, too repetitive, too symmetrical. In turn, each of the five women, in gut-wrenching, passionate performances, gets to be frightened, angry, snubbed, depressed, recovering.
Director Margo Essman keeps the pace frenetic in act one, more balanced in act two, though the constant movement of benches is intrusive. But the final moments are powerfully agonizing, with projections of the Vietnam War Memorial names enshrouding you, covering all walls of the theater. It’s a potent production of a flawed theater piece. But these voices must be heard.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.