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StageStruck: WHAT's Up at the Harbor

Our critic takes a busman's holiday on Cape Cod.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012
Lewis D. Wheeler Photo
Caitlin Wilson, Alex Pollock and Robert Kropf in Sticks and Bones

I've been away. On vacation. This is news only because it's the first time I've left Western Mass. during the summer theater season since, let's see, oh, yes, ever. I went to the Cape and did nothing but loll and laze, sun and swim. And, okay, I went to the theater. Twice.

The shows were at theaters that until this year were venues for the same company. The Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) has been a Cape Cod institution for a quarter of a century, formerly housed in a funky little space by the water and now holding forth in the distinctly unfunky Julie Harris Theater out on Route 6 (what.org, 508-349-9428). The old location has been taken on by a brand-new organization, the Harbor Stage Company, which was formed early this year when WHAT's lease on the harbor property wasn't renewed, for reasons that haven't been made public.

Harbor Stage, an actor-run ensemble of WHAT veterans, furthers WHAT's original mission of presenting new and/or edgy work. Meanwhile, WHAT's edge doesn't seem to have been dulled by its posh—and overhead-intensive—new digs.

The shows I caught last week, both of them new to me, are surreal comedies that confront harsh questions of sanity, betrayal, self-deception and death. Adventurous (and major-award-winning) experiments with style and substance, both were imaginatively if unevenly staged. But I found them rather dreary, the substance drowned out by self-conscious style, despite impressive performances across the board.

Hysteria, at WHAT, is a critique of Sigmund Freud's revision of his theory of incest, filtered through the psychoanalyst's acquaintance with Salvador Dalí. Terry Johnson's 1993 play bounces between blistering accusations from the angry daughter of a former patient and images from Dalí's surrealist dreamscapes, with an extended parody of the British naughty-knickers brand of farce thrown in.

There's an aha moment at the end, when the reason for this ill-fitting montage is revealed. But by then it's more an a- without the -ha, and the bizarre clash of styles feels like a sly Freudian joke cooked up to make a didactic drama into a black comedy.

David Rabe's Vietnam-era Sticks and Bones, at Harbor Stage through Sept. 8 (harborstage.org, 508-349-6800), is solidly in the black comedy mold. It's set in a satirically suburban household headed by parents Ozzie and Harriet (yes, the resemblance to that 1950s sitcom is intentional), whose squeaky-clean lifestyle is upended by the return of son David from the war, blinded and enraged by what he's seen and done. The play was a hit in 1972, when the war was roiling the country and Broadway was welcoming both protest plays and alternative styles. It won a best-play Tony for its cheeky sendup of all-American "values" that disintegrate in a nightmarish cascade that could make you think PTSD is contagious.

I, and the people I was with, found the piece overwrought and hopelessly dated—political agitprop married to '60s avant garde. But here's a subjectivity alert. I was sitting two seats away from the Boston Globe's critic, who applauded it in his paper as a "fierce and unsettling" piece that "does not feel in the least bit dated." Which, once again, goes to show: art speaks to everyone, but we often hear different voices.

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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