If our global warming trend continues and dog days of January (yesterday’s high: 72) become the norm, one unanticipated side effect may be the prospect of a year-round stuffy theater season. Those who frequent off-Broadway theater have learned to accept their sticky fate in the summer, but the notion of theatrical sweat lodges through January is sure to separate the men from the boys.
Such were my gloomy thoughts as I took my seat in the sweltering upstairs theater of P.S. 122 for a three act performance of You Belong To Me, the ambitious but uneven fifth installment the International WOW Company’s Death of Nations Project.
The first installment of the project, in 2004, began with a delightfully disorienting bus tour from downtown Manhattan to a post-industrial warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Described as a tour of the “New York of your mind”, the trip featured a guided history jaunt past various forgotten sites of colonial atrocity. This new installment, which depicts the ends of the American Civil War, WWII and the current Iraq war, shares the same spirit of adventure as part one, but lacks the exhilarating energy needed to sustain the nearly three hour tour.
Act One is set in the miserable milieu of pre-Reconstruction South; the vague storyline features an amputated confederate who hobbles home to his adulterous southern belle (Carrie Getman) and quickly has his rival hung from a rope until dead. His wife is devastated, but finds solace in her new hobby of disemboweling animals and sharing her sorrows with the local slave whore Cassy (played with electrifying intensity by Okwui Okpokwasili). Throughout the action two powerful singers, Beth Griffith and Elizabeth Knauer, strive to create an eerie atmosphere with nearly incessant a cappella caterwauling – this risky choice rapidly devolves from haunting to grating as they moan/sing on and on. And on.
The first act is weighed down by long pauses, hysterical speeches and a suffocating gravitas that’s relieved only by Okpokwasili’s riveting presence and director Josh Fox’s knack for visually arresting tableaux. His imaginative staging makes for irresistible eye-candy, but the text – in Act One primarily – is ponderous and overwrought. Most of it is delivered in melodramatic soliloquies, with the actors spilling their guts directly to the audience. The cast seems burdened by the stiff, declamatory text; one by one they grasp for an unearned emotional payload that never lands.
At varying intervals, the houselights come up, forcing the intimate audience into the light as the performers carry on. The intent may be to keep the spectators from withdrawing into the anonymous passivity that darkness affords, but in my experience this technique works better in theory than in practice. Personally, I’d rather not have the lights on me as I’m wincing through some poor actor’s heavy-handed monologue.
But in the center of all this declaiming is a pile of mattresses, on which rests the mesmerizing Okpokwasili. (Some may remember her for work in Richard Foreman’s Maria Del Bosco and Cowboys and Indians.) By simply radiating an expression of world-weary contempt, Okpokwasili frames her self-pitying oppressors in appropriate absurdity. In fact, one of the first actions in You Belong to Me is the sexual domination of Cassy by two good old boys. Occurring in clinical silence, the scene would be impossible to sit through were it not for Okpokwasili’s stunning expression of bored dignity that makes it clear just who’s mastering who.
In Act Two the story of the Third Reich’s collapse is seen through the eyes of an aristocratic Nazi (Irene Christ) and her chatty maid (Angelika Sautter). Although the subject matter is as grim as Act One, this segment is performed with a wild, campy abandon – in German with English supertitles. As Allied forces close in on her estate, the Madam farcically helps the men commit suicide, first by stabbing, then by axing, then by botched hanging. Blood is everywhere, and the maid can’t help interrupting the Madam’s own suicide attempt with questions about how she's expected to clean such a horrific mess.
At times the camp feels a bit forced and the reappearance of the dreaded a cappella choral singers – this time wearing horned Valkyrie helmets – is cringe-inducing, but it’s a lively romp overall. The company achieves their best virtuoso moment when, after the Americans have occupied the estate and performed a triumphant V-E Day swing dance extravaganza, the Madam is abruptly interrupted by a Hollywood director correcting her pronunciation. Suddenly we’re watching a hilarious American movie version of Nazi decadence, with an unwilling German starlet who is chased manically around the stage by an overbearing film crew. It’s up to the audience to decide just what Fox is suggesting here (a meta-commentary on our tendency to reduce our enemies into simplistic caricatures, perhaps?) but the result is dizzying fun, regardless of intent.
The Third Act takes place in a U.S. military hospital in Germany where soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq are sent to convalesce before going home or back into the shit. Harold (Harold Kennedy) is a shell-shocked wheelchair-bound veteran whose instability is only exacerbated by the constant questions fired at him by his German physicians.
Harold’s hallucinatory mental landscape is depicted with the same absurdity that held the previous act afloat; through his eyes we see a recovery ward in which his fellow sick comrades appear as a giant polar bear, shark and tiger. Kennedy portrays the wounded soldier with heartfelt anguish but the rest of the wounded, disguised in their animal costumes, are played with a troubling degree of frivolity. There’s a whimsical wheelchair dance number that got big guffaws from the audience, as did Robert Saietta’s depiction of a mentally ill soldier in rabbit ears pitifully coveting a toy bunny.
I’m pretty sure the company is not trying to play the suffering of brain damaged soldiers for laughs; the intent seems to be to illustrate how a war-scarred veteran might view the world through heavily medicated eyes. But the glib guffaws from the presumably liberal New York audience that surrounded me – particularly during Saietta’s scene – seemed unnervingly callous. I can’t help but wonder how someone with a family member wounded in overseas combat might interpret Act Three, especially given the nature of the audience reaction.
But the overall premise comes across clearly enough: our grotesque and vacuous American pop culture permeates everything we do – including how we go to war. After all, the production’s promotional description promises a climactic finish at the pending opening of Baghdad Disneyland. Thus, when a giant polar bear soldier frisks a woman in a burka and then takes her from behind to the tune of “You Belong To Me”, we’re not so startled.
Maybe it’s a sign of how spectacularly depraved American behavior on the world stage has been in recent years that this tableau comes off as a bit too on-the-nose. In fact, all it would take would be for the polar bear to drown to death after killing the woman and burning her corpse for the show to come full circle from delirious spectacle to unflinching naturalism.
You Belong to Me runs through January 23rd as part of The Coil Festival at P.S. 122. Tickets cost $15.