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Theatre in Review: The Invention of Tragedy; The Green Room

Top: The Invention of Tragedy. Photo: Hunter Canning. Bottom: Eli LaCroix, Sami Staitman. Photo: S. Scott Miller.

Two exceedingly odd productions provide showcases for young actors, although they certainly have their work cut out for them. The Invention of Tragedy is part of The Flea Theater's Mac Wellman festival. Wellman, who has been plying his trade for forty years -- and who is, by all accounts, a fine teacher of playwriting -- is something of a lion of the avant-garde; he is also an acquired taste. During the eighties, I admired some of his plays, but if you aren't in a receptive mood -- and you really, really need to be -- his work can seem confoundingly willful.

The Invention of Tragedy is set in a school auditorium -- an amusingly lifelike piece of work, rendered in all its banality by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader -- and is entirely populated by a cast of young ladies dressed, by Alice Tavener, in what appear to be graduation gowns crossed with choir robes. Most of the time, they function as a chorus. Immediately setting the tone, they announce:

"And chop the chails off all cats. All things come all things come and are based on the hope apple. Let there be hope apples, hope apples and donuts of every silvery degree. Let there be a dragon of trees and of washing without wash cloths bags cats wardrobes bungle things and other things traps and twerps and words and greater words of estuarial conviviality. La la la la la la la. La la la."

Not that the entire text is that opaque. For example, a member of the company steps forward to say, "This difference is a problem. This difference is a problem for one and all as we shall see the problem will not go away." A second later, however, everyone is back to talking about chopping off those cats' chails. There's also a character known as Answerer, who says, "I am here to announce, er. I am her to er here to pronounce and enounce and denounce and renounce a total that is TOTAL expostulation of cats er. A total exposure of cats er. A TOTAL I mean TOTAL departure of cats. I mean I am here to announce and PROCLAIM a departure of all cats." I'm sure that this clears it all up for you.

The only suggestion I can offer is that, seeing The Invention of Tragedy, certain names went through my head, such as John Ashbery and Edith Sitwell, poets who preferred the sounds of words over their meanings; it's certainly an approach, although whether it really works in a theatrical setting is debatable. Anyway, this is a work that, no doubt, some will find beguiling, but I have to pass. I would add that the cast performs with gusto, and Brian Aldous' lighting and Sadah Espii Proctor's sound both constitute solid contributions. One other note: If you choose to attend, be aware that some performances are termed dog-friendly, a nod to a text that, despite its many mysteries, takes a notably dim view of felines. I attended one such matinee; the audience included six thoroughly adorable pooches. Four of them were impeccably behaved. (It occurred to me that they were probably getting as much out of the production as I was.) Two otherwise lovely canines, both sitting in the front row, were understandably alarmed when the action became too presentational, and one fell into fits of barking. The cast forged on bravely. I felt for the poor thing, but I cannot say this aided my understanding or enjoyment of the onstage activities. Take my advice: Better leave Rover at home.

If The Invention of Tragedy is a largely mandarin enterprise, The Green Room, at American Theatre of Actors, barely has a thought in its head. How often I have heard actors say that there was more drama unfolding in the green room than onstage in this or that production. Well, the proposition has been taken up: This new musical focuses on four undergraduates carrying on about very little as they struggle their way through their college theatre courses; so much time do they spend in the room of the title, kvetching and belting not-very-good musical numbers, that it's little wonder some of them are in danger of flunking out.

There are four characters. John, a leading man type, sees theatre mostly as an opportunity to land girls. Anna, his current squeeze, is exceedingly modest and worries about giving up her virginity in the manner of the heroines of 1960s sex comedies. Cliff, her brother, is the kind of overdramatic type who enters a room leaping like a member of the corps de ballet, quoting Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech. Despite several cracks about his masculinity -- this appears to be the only entirely heterosexual college theatre department in the fifty United States -- he falls hard for Divonne, a frustrated diva who never gets the lead and who can't be bothered to do her homework.

The book, by C. Stephen Foster and Rod Damer, is a collection of non-incidents. John precipitates the first act crisis when it appears that he may be forced to leave school and take up a position as partner in his father's architecture firm. (He's a sophomore, which is a pretty good joke on the firm's future clients.) In any case, this problem evaporates during the intermission. Much of the second act hinges on Anna's unwillingness to wear a dominatrix costume; for reasons that I can't bring myself to go into, everyone's future hangs on her decision. When she finally dons the garment, it looks like something that wouldn't bring a blush to the cheek of Miss America 1948. Anyway, they are all headed, directly after graduation, for New York, where Anna and Cliff's wealthy father is springing for an Off-Broadway show that will showcase their talents. I believe this is called a vanity production.

Otherwise, there is a pregnancy scare, a joke about appearing in blackface, and songs that make apparently humorous references to cokeheads and fags; when any of the characters wants to look seductive, he or she leaps onto the couch and delivers a leering glance. In a number titled "Nothing Can Stop My Boys," Cliff pays tribute to the power of his sperm; this will give you a fair idea of Charles Pelletier's music and lyrics. I'll say this for The Green Room: There isn't a single moment that appears to have any connection with real life; that's something you don't see every day. (Jessica Jennings' direction does little to ameliorate this.) The four cast members all have polished musical theatre skills and I wish them the best; I expect they will have better jobs soon. -- David Barbour

(10 October 2019)

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