Theater Criticism 101 advises stumped critics to ask themselves three basic questions: 1. What is the show trying to do? 2. Does the show do it? 3. Was it worth doing? Jim Bovino's world premiere The Believers is a stumper—such a stumper that I cannot answer the first two questions with any confidence.
First, a bit about Bovino. He recently movedhere from Minneapolis and wrote an introductory e-mail to The Stranger explaining that he's a veteran of the Edinburgh fringe festival, "trained intensively for three years in Decroux corporeal mime technique," and ran a company called Flaneur that mounted plays lacking "fully realized characters or a solid narrative structure." In many cases, that would be a criticism, but Bovino writes it as a simple explanation—maybe even a boast.
His 2006 play The Believers comes straight from the Bovino playbook. Unrealized characters? Check. Absence of narrative structure? Check. The Believers is lots of words and little sense. Eight actors splash around in Bovino's philosophical puddle, wondering whether reality is really real, whether "the whole city is one big movie set," and dropping in aphorisms like "imagination is the intermediary between perception and thought." (That's Aristotle's, not Bovino's.)
The play's narrative fragments jostle against each other and the list of characters reads like a Bob Dylan song, circa Blonde on Blonde: gamblers, clerics, sinister members of the Historic Preservation Society, a pushy film auteur, a geometer (I think—he spends a long time fondling a compass), a detective, a woman whose profile looks like pornography, her voyeurs, a lady trapped in an asylum (or a prison or her own mind or something), etc. Occasionally, a Rod Serling–like character played by Joe Feeney—thin and ingratiating with a big-toothed smile—steps in, directly addresses the audience with a few cryptic remarks, and disappears again.
There's nothing wrong with a narrative mess or a show that makes the audience work for it. The last two winners of the Stranger Genius Award for Theater—Implied Violence and the Cody Rivers Show—specialize in narrative jumbles (Implied Violence to make dense, thrilling, and disturbing spectacles and Cody Rivers to make head-spinning comedy). Not to mention international puzzles like Superamas, Romeo Castellucci, Dorky Park, and the rest.
So what is Jim Bovino doing? I don't know. And I don't think he does, either. In his e-mail, Bovino says he wants "to engage the audience's imagination and provide the opportunity for a unique cognitive experience." The Believers is "a unique cognitive experience"—but so is reading a menu at a diner.
For the record, Bovino's shows were well received in Minneapolis. He won some newspaper awards, and a review of The Believers in City Pages stated: "Bovino is working with heady and philosophically charged material here, and he deftly steers the ship around from metaphysics and allegory to social commentary."
What was good about this production of The Believers: a bluesy, moody soundtrack by Minneapolis band Take Acre and the simple gray set (a newspaper box downstage, a wall with eight windows upstage, and a tangle of two-by-fours on stage right) designed by Seattle artist Zack Bent.
The rest of The Believers is an exhausting series of theatrical backflips to no purpose. Bovino doesn't deploy his experimental tactics—and force his audience to do all that work—because he's got something to say. The Believers is superficial sound and fury, masquerading as depth.
Sorry, Mr. Bovino. Welcome to Seattle.