Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why Torture is Wrong... Struggles to be Right

By Rachel Korach Howell
Photos by Elisabeth Ross

Regan Jade Loula as Felicity; Benjamin Alley as Zamir
Iowa City - Dreamwell’s Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, written by Christopher Durang and directed by Adeara Jean Maurice, is a look into post 9/11 frenzy in the United States with smatterings of other hot topic political issues thrown into the mix. The story revolves around Felicity (Regan Jade Loula) and her marriage to a possible terrorist named Zamir (Benjamin Alley). We see them wake up together and it becomes quickly clear that what was, to her, a one night stand (foolishly enacted in a drunken blackout) is actually the result of being slipped a drug and forced to marry a man she doesn’t know (married by an oblivious minister who makes porn, played by Brian Tanner). Zamir’s random shouting and violent threats to keep her from annulling the marriage, are seemingly, fairly easily ingested by Felicity as she agrees to have him meet her parents.

Luella, Felicity’s mother (Sandy Goodson), a sort of Stepford shell of a once-was woman (a clear result of an overly patriarchal society and a war-mongering and abusive husband), talks mostly of movies and theatre while the father, Leonard (Randall Schroeder) gets furiously angry on the turn of a dime, brandishes hand guns at the drop of a hat, and mysteriously retreats to care for his “butterfly collection” which no one has ever seen and Felicity suspects isn’t real.

We have some other characters thrown into this motley mix as well: an adventure starved, exceedingly patriotic, naïve Hildegarde (Valerie Bills) and a narrator (Chuck Dufano) who moonlights as a few different characters to further the story along and create an air of more unease for the central character.

(L-R) Chuck Dufano, Sandy Goodson, Brian Tanner,
Regan Jade Loula, Randall Schroeder
Christopher Durang is known for that crazy sort of dark comedy, where each character is a total character and no one is the bad guy and no one is the hero and everything can be simply… odd and off-putting. Things don’t often make sense in this particular world and the audience may find it extremely difficult to discern any redemptive qualities in the characters. Two hours of making these challenging characters likable is a very tall order for any director to overcome.

In interpretation of the script, there were problems. We saw some clear staging choices that simply weren’t motivated. Lots of turning out to the audience that didn’t serve story or character. Jokes that needed tightening and more flare. Big explosive angry moments with very little build or consistency. There were opportunities missed and specific choices that could have been made for each of the characters that just weren’t evident within the show. There were things that could have been done to both showcase the absurdity of the characters and, at the same time, make them completely honest—allowing the audience to see some glimmers of hope for them, letting the messages within the piece sink in, and enjoying their journeys more.

Overall, the show suffered from line flubs, pacing issues, and exceedingly long set changes. This show has many short scenes in it, and each scene required a full transition. At one point, almost an entire song played during a transition, leading to audience discomfort and confusion. It was perhaps a technical glitch working itself out at opening, but 30 seconds is an eternity in black out, and it’s very hard to win an audience back. This particular change lasted well over a full minute.

Doing edgy material such as this is a valiant idea, but this simply wasn’t a finished product. Without adequate subtext work, fearlessness and a general tightening of everything, the messages are lost and the evening lacking. The show would have benefited from more rehearsal time and a little more thinking outside the box.

Kudos to all involved for tackling this monster of a script. Comedies are possibly the most difficult genre to produce, and Christopher Durang adds layers upon layers, making his comedies possibly the most difficult within the genre to successfully produce for a general audience. Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them runs through February 28. More information here.


Phil said...

I’m quite surprised by the negative tone of this review. It doesn’t mention one good thing about the production, which I think is unfair. I saw it opening night, too, and while there were some flubbed lines and a couple of missed cues, they were few in number compared to the lines delivered correctly (and well) and the many entrances, exits, and scene changes that were perfectly timed. It’s a vigorous, fast-paced play, and the direction kept it moving at a reasonable clip. I’m sure repeated performances will give it the polish it lacked on Friday. In fact I talked to someone who saw it the very next night and he said there were a few problems but not that many. Maybe reviewers shouldn’t cover opening nights of plays. It may be standard to do that in New York City, but I think we should cut small volunteer theater groups in Iowa City a little more slack.

The reviewer seems uncomfortable with the subject matter of the play, calling it “odd and off-putting.” There’s no question that a farcical satire of topics like terrorism, misogyny, and xenophobia is odd, and probably off-putting. It’s strong stuff, not to everyone’s taste. But she seems to suggest that the content is something the director must compensate for by making the characters more likable and “honest.” I disagree with that. They don’t need to be likable at all (although several of them are.) Neither do they have to be “honest” or believable. Characters in a farce are exaggerated representations of attitudes the playwright is mocking. Their oddity is the point. Abrupt mood swings, non sequiturs, and asides to the audience are standard techniques for actors to use in this kind of play. The reviewer says that more “consistent” behavior would better prepare the audience for the “explosive angry moments” but that would diffuse the humor. Worse, it would change it, turning the play into something other than a farcical black comedy. Some people might like that better, but it isn’t what Durang wrote.

Flubbed lines aside, the actors all did an extremely good job of bringing their eccentric, alienating characters to life. There were several winning performances but I’ll just single out Dreamwell stalwart Chuck Dufano, who played several roles with great energy and wit. This cast is good, and it will just keep getting better.

Genevieve Heinrich said...

As an occasional reviewer, I will say that it would be GREAT to avoid going on opening night (some theatres even request that we go to preview night! that can be challenging!); however, in non-professional theatre, when a show runs often for only 4-6 performances, most companies prefer the reviewer come as early as possible, so the word gets out, whether the review is positive or not. After all, there's no such thing as bad publicity!