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Without a clue 

by Michael Bowen


So, like, I had this idea, man. This will be so cool. We could like get together a bunch of our friends, y'know -- just some guys we know, whoever, doesn't matter -- and we could take over an old theater and put on, like, a play. We could do this thing on how illusion and reality are intermixed. Oh, and we could put up a video screen, and we'll use the same people -- the same actors will be in the video and in the live action onstage. This will be so rad! The video can stand for reality and the stage action will represent this really totally awesome fantasy world...


But we don't have much money, J.


Yeah, well... oh, I know, we'll just call attention to our limited resources, okay? We can be really postmodern and stuff -- by putting everybody in these really skanky wigs and just a bunch of random costumes, to show everyone that we realize all of that, we're not a sellout like some slick Broadway play, and so we're not going to bow down at the altar of all that commercial crap like plot coherence and continuity, because, y' know, theater is best if it like just flows from moment to moment. And we can, like, philosophize and have our actors say some really heavy things...


Heavy plodding is indeed what lies ahead for playgoers at the Valley Rep. Lines like the following thud onto the stage like pompous bricks. First, there's the complaint: "The soothsayer has engendered false hopes, my lord." Next, the moral quandary: "I feel that I mustn't go, and yet I must. We dare not run in the face of superstition." Disillusioned self-awareness: "These lines I have to say -- it's so sick, so degrading." (We know, we know.) One character actually says, "I pity the poor actor who each night must embrace the actors he loathes." (Oh, how we know.) Then there's the slipshod treatment of the language, most noticeable when King Archos proclaims that "the dreams of the world are now particularly portentious." (He meant "portentous," but no matter. "Pretentious," maybe? Maybe we just don't care what he meant. Still, at least the cast was consistent: they also mispronounced "visage" and the name of Helen of Troy's husband, Menelaus.)


The plot that is woven from the tapestry of such grand verbal ornament is, to put it charitably, frayed. There are these dragons, you see, and they have six heads. There's also a rival king whose name is derived from the Greek word for something nasty (so clever, so sophomoric), and he falls in love with the handmaiden of the queen. There's also a wise man and some missing dwarves or something. The hero careens between the onstage world and the supposedly "real" world of the projected video, and he falls in love with this girl who's like the substitute handmaiden. And they can't get out of the fantasy world until they tap their ruby shoes together three times (or more like three hundred, at the pace this show is going), and then, and then... oh, never mind.


Director JFQ (most of the company employ pseudonyms, and I can see why) has relayed to me the story of how he and his theatrical gang found Richard Selzer's script for Without a Myth on the Internet, and how it has gone, in the 30 years since it was written, without a production.


A pity. Remarkable how a script like this could have lain in disregard and oblivion for so many years. I wonder why that should be. I wonder.


Note to self: it does not inspire great confidence when the director's parting comment as the reviewer enters the theater is, "Be merciful, man. Be merciful."


But it's hard to be charitable about the costuming, which is eclectic. (There's no statement in it or anything. Just pointless randomness.) There's a servant-boy dressed to resemble Harpo Marx, and here comes our hero now in combat fatigues and a mismatched purple haze of hair, and a queen who looks like one of those chicks in a really bad gladiator movie from the '50s only with a fright-wig to top it off. There are two British barristers, and a soothsayer with witch-doctor face paint and the mannerisms of a chimpanzee, and a guitarist peering out from underneath an Afro done English sheepdog-style, and... well, you get the (lack of any discernible) idea.


Back in the '70s, after the joint had been passed, I sometimes betook myself to pen and paper, because these thoughts I was having, they just really make you think, ya know? I was sighting connections among insights that were more insightful than any insights that had ever been sighted.


I wrote these thoughts down, scrawling page after page until dawn. I have kept these writings. (This was rebellious prose, untrammeled by any bourgeois considerations for the page's edge or horizontal lines.)


But what I did not do, even then, even in my drug-induced vainglory, was to go public with them. I did not take my pseudo-profound Mary Jane babblings and show them to anyone else. I never turned them into a play.


But Richard Selzer, dramatist, is a braver man than I. He not only conquered his reluctance, he smashed it utterly. He has taken incoherence-not-good-enough-to-be-called-trashy-fun and thrust it onto a stage.


Still, incredibly, JFQ and the Gang deserve some praise. The video-and-live action idea has merit; JFQ himself isn't without intelligence; and a couple of his actors, notably Sam Thomas and Cassandra Rogers as the two leads, are actually capable of some decent acting. But perform scripts that are worth performing, people. If fantasy-reality borderlands are your interest, then try the plays of Luigi Pirandello -- Six Characters in Search of an Author; Tonight, We Improvise; Henry IV. Or try Through the Looking Glass, maybe, with a '60s sensibility. Anything but Selzer's dreck.


And don't try to evade the requirements of talent and perceptiveness simply by inserting sly, self-mocking jokes into low-quality material. Doing bad, sloppy work and then letting everyone know that you know it's poor and sloppy does not absolve you from your obligation to perform good theater. We don't need to have folks turned off to the theater. Too many of them are already tuned out and into another channel altogether.


JFQ's program notes teach us that in this show, "the fantasy is pretty and colorfull [sic], while reality is stark and almost more fake than the fantasy. Think about it. Maybe you'll get it."


Maybe I will. Gee, I hope so. Yeah, I got it all right.

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