Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where From Here? : Polly Stenham's That Face

The Play: That Face (Midwest Premiere)

The Playwright: Polly Stenham (written in 2007, when she was just 19)

The Venue: Red Twist Theatre

The Gist: Boozy woman has bizarre relationship with enabling son while daughter is a bit of a loose cannon who nearly kills classmate by slipping her some (read: a good deal of) Valium and husband now lives in Hong Kong with new family.

Thoughts: The cast, as is often the case at Red Twist, do an admirable job with the script. Personally, I’m a fan of the company (case in point: I’ll be doubling back this week to see their production of Tracy Letts' Bug), but I can’t say this time around that any performances really stuck out. Though whether that’s due to the script or the acting, I’ll try to circle back and answer a little later.

First, some background on the play: As mentioned above, the playwright Ms. Stenham wrote the script at the ripe old age of nineteen. It became a hit at the Royal Court and then made its way to the West End where it was as sonorously applauded. A new, fresh voice had arrived, cried the London papers, the successor to Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee no less. Next the play headed to America where it premiered at the Manhattan Theatre club and received… well, mixed reviews. Though, to be fair, it’s not uncommon for a play to be heralded in London and then shrugged at here, and vice versa.

The play itself opens interestingly enough, as two teenage girls hover over a younger girl bound and gagged in a chair. The teenagers punch and slap the girl, taunt her. You quickly wish for the younger girl to drop her stoic posturing and reveal the location of the other half of the amulet, when you realize it’s an initiation ceremony, which for some damn reason puts you at ease. Then you notice that something else is amiss, a wee off. Then one of the teenagers does as well.

Next we’re in a bedroom, and a young man lies on a bed at his mother’s feet (subtle, right?). The woman awakes, apologizes profusely for letting it happen again, and things continue from there. Admittedly, the situation isn’t amazingly original, could even be said to be derivative, but the dialogue snaps now and again; and good theatre isn’t necessarily determined by which depot it departs from, but where it takes you.

Problem is, though the writing is sound, even adept at times, the script doesn’t really take you anywhere that you haven’t been before. Sure, a few bits of artful “crazy” are tossed in, and when they are you again rub your palms and think, “Okay, here we go.” But a moment later you find everything is back on the rails, making the now familiar stops in Dysfunctionalfamilyville.

So why all the praise? Why the laurels and comparisons to a couple of the 20th Century’s most distinctive voices in English-language theatre? The playwright’s youthfulness? Perhaps. If recent history ever provided precociousness with an outlet, next to the piano I guess we’d have say the theatre has often come in a close second (paging Orson Welles). But because Ms. Stenham’s first script falls short, doesn’t make the most of many of its opening conceits, now that the hype has passed and she’s a whopping 25-years-old, does that mean she and this play should be dismissed wholesale? I don’t think so. Firstly, because as disappointed as I was at times, I have to credit the playwright for piquing my interests enough in the beginning for there to even be a letdown. And disappointed or not, my attention was engaged to the end. Secondly, the play is a worthy document of a young artist’s first steps into the public eye. What you crave while watching one play may not be gratified in the same. Perhaps not until one or two or five scripts later will the playwright get around to scratching that itch for you. Clearly, this is a “long game” view, but if you’re really hungry for new experiences, to come across less traveled yet still worthy paths to hook onto from the interstate, rarely, after a certain point in your life and amount of cultural exposure, does it happen in one play/film/novel—that is, in a single shot. Whether from one author or cobbled together from numerous (questions from here, motifs from here, the perfect cadence over here), at this point a few installments are usually necessary to construct fresh mosaics. And though it yet remains to be seen, it appears Ms. Stenham may have more good things to bring to the process, if not even a few answers.

So returning to the earlier question of whether the script or the actors limited this production, I’d have to say the cast did a splendid job with a script replete with upper-class British argot and a temperament that would never have survived a Midwestern reinterpretation. A young woman while brazenly working to establish her literary voice wrote a script, and the cast of devoted actors unapologetically presented the product of her efforts. What more can you ask?

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