Saturday, January 26, 2013

What Would Bertolt Brecht Do?

By James E. Trainor III

Photos by Bob Goodfellow

Scot West (Professor Dick Fig) and Maura Clement (Mrs. Meredith)

Iowa City - If I told you I went to see a play about The Problem of Evil, you'd probably yawn. Or smile and try to make small talk instead. After all, we don't need to rehash this; you've sat through philosophy class. You know that the idea that God can be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent all at once has been long ago disproved. You don't need a 21st-century playwright to explain this to you. You live in a modern, rational, enlightened society. Except. In this modern, rational, enlightened society we still have religious and political leaders who tell us gay marriage causes hurricanes and rape victims can magically prevent pregnancy. We still have Fox News. If our Enlightenment ancestors aren't turning over in their graves, they're at least wishing we'd take a refresher course.

That's where William Missouri Downs comes in. His new play The Exit Interview, showing at Riverside Theatre through February 17 as part of a National New Play Network "Rolling World Premiere," is a refreshing, clever, and altogether hilarious take on the whole science vs. religion issue. So, yeah. I went to see a play about The Problem of Evil. And I'll say this: if there is a Heaven, the theatre there damned well better be this interesting.

Before I go into the (spoilers!) plot, I want to divert your attention to a science fiction novel by Phillip K. Dick: the book is called VALIS, and it's a very peculiar combination of theological philosophy, personal confession, and LSD-induced new-age exegesis. Why am I talking about a science fiction novel on a theatre blog? Because there's this cat. This dead cat. Kevin, the token atheist, can't believe in the Christian God because he can't believe anything all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving would let his stupid cat run out into the street. So he plans to take this dead cat with him up to heaven, hold it up to St. Peter, and demand an explanation.

Hold that image in your head for a moment: the stubborn rationalist standing at the Pearly Gates, waving a dead cat in the face of the unknowable infinite. Got it? Good. Now add a little caption: "The Problem of Evil." Got it? Good.

That was my mental image of the philosophical concept for most of my adult life; it was the only thing that had the gallows-humor and shock value required to present the problem to an increasingly theocratic and irrational culture. But now there's this: The Exit Interview is Kevin's cat magnified a thousandfold, much darker and much funnier, as if we need a better term than "gallows" humor in the age of mass executions.

In The Exit Interview, we get a crazed gunman instead of a car, and a squad of offstage cheerleaders instead of a dead cat. Instead of Kevin, we have Dick Fig (though he prefers to be called Richard) -- a recently fired college professor who loves Bertolt Brecht, detests small talk, and can't resist the urge to talk everyone he meets out of circular, illogical, magical thinking. Dick (played by Scot West) is in the midst of answering a maddening series of inane questions from an interviewer (Jody Hovland) who insists on filling him in on "The Secret," while almost certain death lurks outside the unlocked and unlockable door.

Scot West (Professor Dick Fig) and Jody Hovland (Eunice)
It's kind of jarring, I know, especially in the wake of recent events. But this is the kind of mad world we live in, and perhaps this is the kind of mad theatre we need. There's a dangerous impulse, in response to the apparently increasing brutality of modern culture, to come up with something dry, sentimental, and satisfying, something that reaffirms the sanctity and the meaning of life and sends you home to bed with pleasant dreams. It's only natural, and I suppose it has its place, but that same instinct is what's driving a lot of our live theatre to lose its vitality, and become stale, limp, and predictable.

Downs avoids this trap from the get-go. He opens by sending two cheerleaders out into the audience to warn us that the play might be offensive. This "disclaimer" is brazenly unapologetic: The Exit Interview is going to poke fun at your politics, lecture you about Bertolt Brecht, break up the narrative with unrelated vignettes, shamelessly double-cast actors to save money, and since you already paid for your ticket, you might as well just deal with it. The aggressiveness with which the play asserts its stylistic choices is infectious, and the cast, under the direction of Ron Clark, undertakes it well, striking a good balance between serious, engaged naturalism and cartoonish takes to the audience.

There are some great acting moments in Riverside's production: Tim Budd as a condescending priest explaining the "celestial mathematics" of the Holy Trinity; Maura Clement as a evangelical scientist calling down curses on the heretical research of a rival colleague; and Jody Hovland as the cornered interviewer humbly sharing her hopes and dreams with her would-be gunmen are all memorable images. But the real strength of the evening is a very creative, very brave script.

The plot starts off simply enough, in a realistic but comic vein, with Dick answering a questionnaire from his now-former employer. The interaction between West and Hovland is great here; slightly hostile but still within the bonds of reality. The world of the play is very quickly deconstructed, however, as the setting becomes increasingly ridiculous (we're not in an office after all but in a repurposed chemical closet across the hall from constantly chanting cheerleaders), and Dick begins to lecture us about Brecht's Alienation Effect. After Dick explains to the people sitting in the theatre that Brecht wanted people to remember that they were sitting in a theatre, his story is interrupted by conversations with his ex-girlfriend, breaking bulletins from Fox News, commercials, and comic scenes that are only thematically related to the main action.

Throughout all this he carries out a didactic argument about belief with the interviewer, while the gunmen moves closer and closer like a force of nature. And this is where the satirical, Brechtian form is most effective: it hovers somewhere between reality and satire, truth and art. The gunshots and screams offstage remind us that issues being discussed aren't just setups for funny one-liners; reality can be just as insane as fantasy and the question of the meaning of life is a real question people are forced to struggle with -- suddenly, unexpectedly. On the other hand, the worldviews presented in the lightning-quick, channel-flipping skits and spoof that make up much of play are at best ridiculous and vaguely comforting, at worse, shallow and misleading.

If The Exit Interview has any flaws, it's in being a bit polemic, but I'll forgive it that, as its main point is well-made and is very important: there's a fanatical way of thinking that is overriding our supposedly enlightened culture, and it's getting worse. It's spilling over from theology into all areas of public discourse, muddying logical thought and infecting politicians, journalists, and even scientists with a self-righteous zeal that says their truth is the only truth. A great example of this is the little breakaway skit (a "rewrite" that interrupts the action) which contains a little comedic thought experiment: two scientists clutch their reports like holy books and claim to be the true disciple of Einstein while the other is an imposter. On the other end of the spectrum, a religious scholar gives well-documented proof from respected authorities that Joseph Smith was correct, and on the basis of that evidence, "Lutheranism is cancelled." It's a laughable scene that drives it home: there's a growing division between scientific reason and blind faith, and the conversation isn't getting any more sensible.

Downs is concerned it soon won't be a conversation at all. "We have churches on every corner and they own the airwaves..." he says in a talkback. "Scientists whisper. I'm tired of scientists whispering." It's a call to action, and a necessary one in an age where even the news channels are doing what Brecht was afraid art would be pressed to do by capitalism: selling people their own worldviews, refusing to challenge them, refusing to let people think for themselves. The Exit Interview may wear its politics on its sleeve, but what it does not do is lure its audience into a false sense of security. It yells the entire time, demanding you wake up and listen. And it's worth it.

I highly recommend you go see this show. You really don't see theatre like this every day, especially in the Midwest. The "Rolling World Premiere" is a special arrangement through the National New Play Network; Riverside is one of six theatres that gets to produce this play while it is brand new. It runs through February 17th; tickets here.

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