Art and Interlocution: Uncle Rooster and The Elephant Man as script vs. experience
By Patrick Mueller
Written 2/27; revised for publication 3/22
To be forthright: I have issues with traditional theatre (script-driven narrative plays on stage) as a practice – the subservience to plot and script (and the focus on the text that arises from this), predilections for pretending (as opposed to more engulfing applications of imagination and design), and underlying it all a firm, to my mind ridiculous belief that it’s possible to recreate pedestrian reality in some legitimate way through stage tricks and stultified acting techniques. If the text is the primary value of the work, why build an extensive set for the actors to putter around on? Or if naturalism is the goal, the real-world settings and 1st-person perspectives of TV and film offer me a much more detailed experience (if still distinctly not “real”). Why not allow live performance to be more than a story, more than representation, and instead offer a direct experience of something other than what we already know?
Uncle Rooster (Countdown to Zero, at work|space Denver 2/17-3/3) and The Elephant Man (PHAMALY, at the Arvada Center through 2/26) both fit into the basic category of script-based theatre, and deserve to be fairly assessed within that; but both of them also introduce crucial other elements that shift them at least partially outside of this calcified, retrogressive genre.
Tami Canaday’s Rooster is an Animal Farm-esque political parable, using a barnyard community to illustrate the dangers of selling liberties for security. The Elephant Man, written by Bernard Pomerance, is a dramatized documentary that uses the experience of an exquisitely deformed man in late-19th century London to bring up vast questions about God’s hand in creation and fate. Both scripts force the performances to live largely outside of themselves, with the references to real-world political and philosophical issues treated more importantly than the actual world on the stage. And both scripts deliver distinctly worthwhile points about their respective topics, with the characters and action as useful illustrations.
But for me, it’s the things beyond the words that make these performances more than essays on morals and values. The Elephant Man brings its audiences into direct contact with the extreme bodily deformity of main character John Merrick. Presented by Denver’s Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League, Merrick’s character, played by Daniel Traylor, takes on a depth that contains both reality and well-studied, skillfully delivered physicality. Surreal aspects of the play’s plot and characters gain vibrancy in an environment where everyone “has” something – blindness, Aspergers, quadriplegia,… And as the audience becomes familiar with these characters, the production delivers a bluntly powerful double-message about the role of handicapped people in society, and the ways in which a person can too easily be defined by their disability instead of their many remarkable abilities.
Uncle Rooster offers a very different, but similarly engaging, set of physicalities. In a plot nearly devoid of action, the characters are in danger of being simply mouth-pieces for a lecture on power and corruption. Fortunately, Countdown to Zero, under the direction of LIDA Project’s Brian Freeland, balances this semiotic load with a strongly physical performance. Set and Lighting Designer Amelia Charter smashes together the “real” and “fake” in a cartoon landscape with a children’s-book line-drawing backdrop, real sod on a starkly rectilinear stage area, and Robin Davies’s simple wire masks that reveal the human face of the performer clearly under the sketched animal head. The performers offer heightened/reduced embodiment of their character’s species: the hen (Rhea Amos) scratches continually, the mule (Davies) never lifts his hanging head, and the weasel (Ryan Wuestewald) bobs and weaves, nose leading, with every step. The full effect, like a children’s story gone horribly wrong, is a dystopic cartoon world where things don’t quite fit together, where values and morality reveal intrinsic dissonances, and any possibility of a peaceful, just resolution disappears.