Friday, October 05, 2007

Really not sticky sweet

Last night I was sitting in a theatre waiting for that magical moment when the lights go down, the chatter quiets, and a room holds its breath – not sure what will come next, not knowing if they will be challenged or changed, enlightened or disgusted. I love the seconds before a play starts. There are no commercials or trailers, there’s usually not popcorn munching, and most everyone has remembered to turn off their cell phones and leave their toddlers at home. But more than that, a live theatrical production offers something a film simply never could: the potential for spontaneity. What I was about to see had never before existed, and would never again happen, not exactly as it would that night. There is something deeply powerful in that awareness: something that causes us to keep giving theater a chance, no matter how much more it costs than movies or how difficult it is to find something of quality. We give in because we know that it is only we – those strangers gathered with us in the dark – who will ever, ever experience this piece of art in just this way. Giving over to this sort of event is risky. No matter how many reviews you may read (including this one), no one can prepare you for exactly what you will encounter, because no one will encounter exactly what you will.

I pondered these things as I watched Canned Peaches in Syrup, a world premiere production from the Furious Theatre Company (in residence at the Pasadena Playhouse’s Carrie Hamilton Theatre). Last fall, I fell hard for this company’s production of Grace, a beautiful work from a former seminary student about shallow faith, doubt, and truly finding God. In the spring, Furious presented An Impending Rupture of the Belly, which was one of the most disparaged works of art I’ve encountered – at least by the Fuller folks who saw it. Surprisingly, the show enjoyed an extended run, and was met with huge enthusiasm from most of its audiences. I began to wonder: what is the disconnect here? Are people “of the world” so mired in sin and anger that they can’t recognize something offensive or shocking-for-shock’s-sake? Or has Fuller entombed even its artists in a bubble of protection from challenge and the sometimes-ugly realities of the world? I don’t know the answer; I just know that Canned Peaches, should people from Fuller choose to see it, will likely evoke similarly divergent responses.

For me, Peaches fell somewhere in between the other productions on the scale of my preference. Where Grace was luminous, nudging softly towards faith, Peaches presents a hard-edge take on the extremes of religion: people are divided into sheep who blindly follow an antiquated faith and anarchists who revel in chaos and violence. Anyone who saw Belly will recall the coarse language, violence, and some crude moments; Peaches goes further with the language, crude subject matter, and fighting, yet it somehow feels more germane to the situation in this play. Written by Alex Jones and directed by Dámaso Rodriguez (who also directed the other two plays mentioned), Peaches is set in a post-apocalyptic future, sometime after global warming has destroyed most of creation, where people live in a state of constant fear and mistrust, unable to think beyond their next meal and soothing their sun-baked skin. It is probably what Deadwood would be like were it set in the (bad news) sequel to An Inconvenient Truth.

The characters are interesting and well-played. Great fun is had with Blind Bastard, a “holy man” who confidently preaches in a rhyming religious mashup like some foul-mouthed Lloyd Olgivie. Dana J. Kelly, Jr. gives a solid performance in the role, making you squirm and realize, at the same time, the power and responsibility that comes with having religious authority. Standout performances also include Ma (Laura Raynor) and Heather (Libby West), as polar opposite women both struggling to survive, manifesting their fear and faith in very different ways. In the final scenes of the play, we see how far they will go to stay alive, and how broken they have become as a result of the broken world around them.

Many of the situations are heightened explorations of life events: falling in love, craving connection, losing faith, betrayal, abuse, and jockeying for power and possessions. It is truly a glimpse of hell on earth – bleak and depressing, angry and dangerous. Yet there are signs of the positive: humor, love, family. You can’t help but want to see what happens – when people are at their worst, when their hope is gone, and when their faith has proved shallow and pointless, what will they choose? Will love conquer all? Will some kind of connection be made in this world that has “forgotten how to love”? Or will chaos win out, and evil reign?

Despite its raising interesting questions, I cannot recommend this play to most people at Fuller, especially after the response to Belly (which I thought went a little overboard - get over the swearing, for fuck's sake!). It even comes with an “Audience Advisory” on the first page of the program: “The advertised performance contains material likely to offend those sensitive to simulated cannibalism, crude human behavior, bad words and the coming apocalypse” (I almost wonder if the responses of previous Fuller groups inspired this warning label!). It is a true and fair warning. The audience must have a strong stomach – within the first moments there is simulated vomiting, and the characters discuss their excrement at length. But these are not glib additions: most of the people in this world are very sick, and their expulsions clue them in to their condition.

As I watched what was taking place, live, a few feet in front of me, I was reminded anew of the power of theater to pull us into another world – one from which we may desperately need to escape after two hours. There was nothing in this play that you wouldn’t see on an HBO show or in an R-rated movie. If you enjoy Deadwood or Six Feet Under or Sex and the City, you really can’t complain about the content. And yet, there is something different about it happening right before our eyes, and that is why it is not for everyone.

My main disappointment with the play was that, while it closed on a note of hope in human connection (if we can just love each other, the world will be healed!), it reinforced the idea that crossing group boundaries is not advisable. Those who attempt to relate outside their assigned box are punished, and in the end we find ourselves back in the same polarized world in which we began. Although some of the characters learn lessons about friendship and connection, others give in to fear and doubt, circling the wagon (literally) and refusing to trust. But even in that situation, there is evidence of influence from “the Other,” in the end. We cannot help but be touched – and likely changed – when we encounter those different from ourselves.

And that is the lesson that I think we Christians can take from exposure to difficult art. While we may not understand, can we find a way to relate – or at least listen – to a culture that believes and behaves quite differently from us? How can we bring the hope of the gospel into that world, if we know nothing of it? Art often reaches into the depths as well as the heights of what it means to be human. So I am willing to keep risking myself at the theatre, ready to be challenged and changed, enlightened and disgusted.


The world premiere of Canned Peaches in Syrup, presented by the Furious Theatre Company, is currently running through November 10 at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena (at Pasadena Playhouse).

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