By Pat Launer
Motion or stasis;
Be moved by ‘Still Life’
Or take wing with ‘Varekai.’
Just the other day on NPR, I heard two war vets being interviewed. The one from Vietnam just couldn’t get past what he’d done, how he’d killed. He’d been in therapy for years, working on his problems, but he said he’d never be able to forgive himself. [The Afghanistan war vet, I should mention, had no regrets whatsoever, and no post-traumatic stress — yet]. When I saw Emily Mann’s “Still Life” a few days later, I heard the same stories. The same kinds of haunted dreams and images, the same sleepless nights, the same inability to forgive and forget.
Set in the late ’70s in the Midwest, Mann’s Obie Award-winning play tells the story of Mark (Francis Gercke), a Marine who’s been back from the Vietnam War for eight years but has not yet gotten, as they used to say, ‘back in the world.’ Mark sits facing the audience, talking directly as if he is being interviewed (by the playwright? A journalist? A shrink?). Next to him, lined up in a row, almost never looking at him or each other, are his wife Cheryl (Amy Cordileone) and his mistress Nadine (Monique Gaffney). It’s not entirely clear if they occupy the same literal space. Their reports and perspectives, contrapuntally intertwined, are often contradictory.
Mann has noted that much of her dialogue was taken verbatim from her talks with real-life Minnesotans in 1978. It’s a difficult play: there is virtually no action, just ninety uninterrupted minutes of talk, occasionally illustrated by projected slides or sound effects. In a herky-jerky, non-linear fashion, kind of the way the mind and memory operate, the play chronicles Mark’s tour of duty in Vietnam, and his subsequent failures at home, which include a stint in prison, false starts as an artist, his rocky, abusive marriage to Cheryl and his relationship with Nadine. Mann makes few judgments here, and none about her characters; but she connects the violence of Vietnam with domestic violence, and with our collective denial of war and its inevitable aftermath, linking them all through the broken lives of the vets and those around them.
It’s a ‘still life’ because they’re frozen in time, but there’s also the sense that, whatever it is, it’s still life — as contrasted with Mark’s unforgotten dead buddies and victims. There is no physical contact onstage; the words are horrific at times, as are the incidents they describe. The dispassion of the delivery in the New Village Arts production underscores the detachment these people have developed in response to the soul-stealing violence in their lives. They are trying to figure it out, to move on, to carve out an existence that is less static than a still life.
Cheryl tells of the murder of her nephew by his mother and, a few sentences later, complains of the flowers that don’t grow in her backyard because of an annoying dog. Nadine rails against the destructive nature of Catholicism and tells how she herself has committed acts of violence. Mark, who might be better seated between his two women, relates how he has beaten his wife and then speaks with pride about her courage in giving birth.
The three actors who present these people do so with integrity and intensity. With less compassion, the characters could become loathsome, unredemptive outcasts of society.
Nadine is the most enigmatic. Passionate about Mark (“He’s the greatest man I’ve ever known”), she’s aware of his atrocities and has committed a few of her own. She is an abuser herself, as well as a protective single mother; a fiercely independent neo-feminist and anti-war activist, but also a lost woman, alone. In a detached, analytical way, Gaffney takes us on an emotional ride, but it’s never really clear which of the various facets of Nadine’s life she believes or lives by.
Gercke is controlled, focused, extremely intense. Usually a highly kinetic actor, here he sits quietly. His eyes are vacant, but his mouth is in constant motion — movements of tongue and lips that bespeak nervous tension but sometimes steal focus. Still, he makes Mark’s anguish palpable — by turns charismatic and repugnant, charming and hateful, impassioned and dispassionate. He is a victim and a criminal, shaped by experiences he found both horrifying and thrilling.
Perhaps surprisingly, in this production it is Cordileone, as the long-suffering, now-pregnant wife who most captures the heart and imagination. Her eyes are red-rimmed as she drinks her way through the 90-minute, intermissionless show. She’s been drugged-out and she looks burned out, as if she has been through the war herself. And indeed she has. Given her background, her era and Cordileone’s performance, we can understand how she’s been abused but won’t do anything about it; how she wants to return to the way things were, but probably won’t; and why she says she wants to have babies but not husbands.
These are the walking wounded, the true casualties of our wars… at home and abroad. Director Kristianne Kurner understands this, and keeps the play taut and unblinking. She has gathered together an impressive collection of slides: searing images of Vietnam friendships and suffering. Some of the sound effects (Derek Brener) are a little on-the-nose, punctuating and illustrating the text, which is powerful enough on its own. Mary Larson’s costumes are spot-on.
These are deeply conflicted people. Damaged, searching, unable to forget or move on. “The men have it all,” says the wife. But not in this play.
In case you hadn’t read or heard, “Varekai” means Wherever (in the Romany language of the wandering gypsies). It’s an imaginary land where anything seems to be possible. And that pretty much describes Cirque du Soleil, too. Gravity is defied, bodies bend and stretch in ways they weren’t meant to.
Varekai is a magical world populated by fantastical creatures in spectacularly imaginative costumes. A young man (a New Age Icarus) parachutes down into a forest where he wanders and learns and tries once again to take flight. But plotline isn’t the driving force of any Cirque production. It’s all about the acts.
“Varekai” is a tad more comprehensible than the recent “Dralion,” a monstrous hodgepodge of styles, stories and creatures. Even here, the narrative is sometimes a distraction, but it allows characters to make a return appearance, most spectacularly, Anton Chelnokov as Icare (Icarus) who spins gorgeously in mid-air, most gloriously while entwining himself in a net. Speaking of nets, there aren’t any below, and that makes me nervous (it also makes me wonder, since most modern circuses are more assiduous about safety). At the end, Chelnikov is joined by his astonishing countrywoman Irina Naumenko, who handbalances on canes. She’s the one I referred to when it comes to bodies that twist and curve in unnatural ways. I could swear she doesn’t have a bone in her back, the way it bends.
And not only canes; one of the more surprising acts is that of Dergin Tokmak, a German acrobat who balances on hand-crutches. He seems to be disabled, with legs that swing about like weightless straw limbs. Amazing in itself, but especially in a group that travels the world to seek out perfection. Here is someone unlike those often indentured slaves (such as the Elephant Man and the Venus Hottentot) in the old side shows, being displayed because of their disabilities or infirmities. This guy has made hay of his therapeutic intervention; he should be a poster child for physical therapy and rehab. His skill on those baby blue crutches is incredible.
Then there’s the group of Soviet bloc acrobats who, propelled by swings, are hurled into their air, falling on their partners’ crossed wrists! Or, how about that Body Skating, where a multinational troupe slides on a fabric surface with amazing grace; or the Water Meteors, three young Chinese acrobats (accent on the young) who whirl ropes weighted with metal meteors, like Argentine bolas. What I want to know is — who comes up with these acts??
One thing I did learn is that there’s only one cast for each show — and right now, there are nine different Cirque du Soleil productions, some on tour and some ‘sitting’ (like ‘O’ at the Bellagio and the new ‘Zumanity’ at New York-New York). The order of acts may change at any time, depending on injuries or illness (for more detail on the Cirque, see my interview on Full Focus, time and date below).
In each Cirque show, the special effects are awe-inspiring, the costumes are breathtaking. The characters speak an invented language, which is pretty amusing at times (more so than the clowns, I’d say). Overall, there’s plenty of eye-popping, jaw-dropping action for all.
Wanna hear the behind-the scenes scoop on Varekai and Arthur Miller’s “Resurrection Blues?” Tune in to ‘Full Focus’ this Thursday, April 8 on KPBS-TV (channel 15/cable 11) at 6:30 and 11:30pm. As guest host, I’ll be interviewing fascinating folks from both shows. Be there!
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Still Life” — intense drama, powerful performances. New Village Arts (at Jazzercize, Carlsbad) through April 17.
“The Gingerbread Lady” — wonderful ensemble work, delicious performances; serious Simon; Renaissance theatre at Cygnet; through April 25.
“M. Butterfly” — the most amazing (true) story ever told! Excellently co-produced by Diversionary and Asian American Rep; at Diversionary Theatre, through May 8
“Two Sisters and a Piano” — passion and politics from Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz; steamy story, provocative performances; on the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through April 11
The days are longer now; plenty of time to play before you head indoors to put a little drama in your life…
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.