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Theatre in Review: Vs. (Mabou Mines Online)

Photo: Onome Ekeh

The characters in Vs., a kind of existential courtroom drama, dwell in an epistemological deadlock. The simplest question -- "Would you like water?" -- causes a hopeless breakdown in communication. To be sure, this is intentional: The action consists of four interviews held in an unspecified official setting. (It is referred to at different times as a court and a senate.) An interrogator -- an unseen, distorted voice -- tries to pursue a line of questioning, only to be frustrated at every turn. For example, that question about water leads to digressions praising the joys of merlots and martinis, followed by a disquisition on the theme that a man is known by what he drinks; perhaps he is "a creature of cruel moods, prone to great sadness; heart open beneath its flesh, beating, pulsing blood through a body clothed in skin; if he is free or perhaps standing before a funeral coffer, fallen into the darkness, smoking his final cigarettes in the winter cold, before he is to be consumed..." With mouthfuls like that, it's difficult for any sort of inquiry to proceed. I should add that this is my first encounter with playwright Carl Hancock Rux, a real talent with a poet's ear.

As the quote above suggests, the interrogatee is masterful at waxing eloquently while evading the questions on hand. The verbal arabesques are impressive. Was he born in November? "Not if we are to consider existence, the first migration north by way of Siberia through a land bridge that connected the eastern fringe of Asia with Alaska." When the question is repeated, he replies, "Not if we are to consider an opposition to phallogocentricism and the hegemonic ideals contained in patriarchal culture uniting theory and fantasy, challenging such discourse within the frameworks of a constitution blown up by law." The third time -- not the charm -- elicits this response: "Your unshakeable determination, a will to allow no one to influence your decisions, or the decision of this Senate, is hidden in the mediocrity of the question and oversimplifications; as if you cannot see the planets all around you?" The actor David Thomson handles these mini essays in a silken, almost seductive, manner that lends a sense of clarity to the most abstruse thought.

With all the talk about intellectual constructs, power relationships, and persons disenfranchised by history, clearly Michel Foucault is in the house. It's a little funny to find such ideas -- so potent in academe twenty-five years ago -- being served up by an avant-garde theatre company of today, even one as venerable as Mabou Mines. This sort of deconstructive approach has largely been replaced, in the classroom and the theatre, by considerations of identity having to do with race, gender, and class; for this reason, Vs. feels rather old-fashioned. Still, the verbal fencing of the first sequence has a teasing quality that has one eager to find out what happens next.

But what happens next is Becca Blackwell appears, repeating Thomson's speeches word for word. Blackwell isn't as adept with Rux's dialogue as her predecessor, who parses and paces the complex sentences for maximum impact. Instead, Blackwell rushes the words, a strategy that sometimes diminishes their impact. Then again, since one has heard it all, only minutes before, it's easy to become a bit disengaged. Next up is Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, a strong, assured presence, who once again, delivers the same material -- in Spanish. (Because this is a Zoom production, the English transition is delivered via the chat mechanism, which is helpful, sort of.) By this point, despite the actress' considerable magnetism, a certain tedium begins to set in. The fourth and final witness, Perry Yung (who is, happily, as adept as Thomson in his delivery), is rather different and more compact; then again, because it makes the same points, it comes off as the Reader's Digest version.

It's an odd experience, elliptical yet often tantalizing, until it veers into a dead end of repetition, parking itself there for the duration. Nevertheless, director Mallory Catlett's handling of the actors is generally fine, as is the digital design of Onome Ekeh, which layers colorful silkscreen effects and imagery of ones and zeroes on the cast members.

Interestingly -- I certainly didn't see it coming -- the theatre has, in this summer of our discontent, become preoccupied with the problem of knowing. Samuel, now at The Tank and available online, makes black comedy out of a family whose members cannot agree on the tiniest detail of their shared past; their grasp of the present isn't too strong, either. Now comes Vs., which resurrects Foucault's ideas about words as instruments of power and domination -- and which, when subjected to investigation, seem to lose their most basic agreed-upon meanings. Why such concerns now? What's it all about? A reaction to our post-truth politics? A weary acknowledgement that we live in a profoundly divided society? Something, it seems, is broken, and nobody knows how to fix it.

It's a point that Vs. at first suggests with some force, but which is dulled by willful repetition. The text is not that hard to grasp. Heard once, it intrigues; heard repeatedly, it feels like schoolwork. But we may be missing something crucial: The program notes that this presentation is only a part of a larger work to be seen in the future. Until then, the jury remains out on this sometimes-compelling act of obstruction.

Vs. is available through Sunday, at specific performance times, at www.maboumines.org.--David Barbour

(2 August 2021)

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