The Seafarer, The History Boys, and the Solo Performance Festival
It could've been more awkward, I suppose. We could've been naked. Instead, solo performer Keira McDonald wore clogs and stretch pants and stood before me (an audience of one) in an empty rehearsal room to run through her solo show Otter Pop—three erotic short stories by herself and playwright Keri Healey. It began with an Egyptian drug dealer. "He taught me how to fuck," McDonald said, her Southern accent rounding and softening the "fuck" to sound as innocuous as a puff of air.
Otter Pop, part of the third annual SPF (Solo Performance Festival) is billed as "smut" punctuated with burlesque by Waxie Moon, but the writing is better than run-of-the-mill erotica: They're short stories that happen to involve sex and jealousy, Vegas and the delicacy of reacting to a failed erection: "It's like a house of cards on a fault line."
Also up at SPF: comedy; my new friends (are so much better than you), a tragedy by S. P. Miskowski; and Fall Fair by Jayson McDonald, the peripatetic Canadian who has won Seattle fans with Giant Invisible Robot, his sweet and sad comedy about a destructive imaginary friend. See www.theatreoffjackson.org for the full schedule.
Some people treat their bodies like temples, but the men in The Seafarer—a 2006 Irish-gothic play by Conor McPherson—treat theirs like tents.
One winter morning in a town near Dublin, Richard (old, blind, visibly filthy) and his friend Ivan (a scarecrow with two mops growing from the sides of his balding head) stagger around Richard's living room like jake-leg zombies. They moan and curse and crawl among the rumpled carpets and beer cans that clutter the stage like stumps in a clear cut. It's Christmas Eve.
Sharky, Richard's fuck-up younger brother who has recently gone sober, stalks around the house disgustedly, picking up beer cans and making tea. As the characters talk about spilled booze on the carpet and piss on the bathroom floor, you can almost smell the fug drifting off the stage and into the audience.
This being an Irish gothic, the men's desperation has a strong undertow of dark, angry comedy, and the actors—Sean Griffin, Russell Hodgkinson, and Hans Altwies, respectively—tear into their miserable characters like men at a bitter feast. Ivan mewls about the punishment he faces from his wife for staying so drunk so often. Richard mercilessly abuses his brother: "Hypocrite... you fucking eejit." And Sharky, tall and seething, absorbs it all, a coil waiting to spring.
Stuff happens, building to a dramatic poker game—this being an Irish gothic, one of the gamblers is the devil disguised as a well-dressed stranger (Frank Corrado) who plays for Sharky's soul. He privately taunts Sharky (the only one who knows who he really is) with a chilling description of hell: "There truly is no one to love you. You're locked in a space that's smaller than a coffin. And it's lying a thousand miles down, under the bed of a vast, icy, pitch-black sea. You're buried alive in there." The devil goes on, his certain calm sucking the life and heat out of the room.
McPherson has laced his modern myth with references to light and sight. ("Lucifer" is Latin for "bringer of light.") Geoff Korf's lighting design adds another layer of quiet symbolism. Bulbs flicker outside (a streetlight) and inside (an electric candle under a Sacred Heart icon). The hovel's indoor lamps are either dim and gloomy or too stark and bright. The effect is subtle but real, mirroring the men's unpleasant lurches between befogged drunkenness and the harsh, hung-over sobriety that reveals too much.
Director Wilson Milam knows the territory. Originally from Seattle, Milam brought The Lieutenant of Inishmore—the gleefully gruesome Irish-terrorism comedy by Martin McDonagh—to the world. Milam directed the UK premiere and was nominated for a Tony for his Broadway version. He couches Seafarer's supernatural content with gritty, natural performances that leave a sad, metallic aftertaste—men living in a hell of their own devising.
Though it ends with a death and a maiming, The History Boys is a cheerier story about upward-striving minds and earthbound bodies. In 1980s Britain, eight bright but unruly boys—rumpled shirts, loosened ties—study for their Oxford and Cambridge exams with three teachers. They slap and tickle and goose each other, trading ripostes about Philip Larkin, girls, WWI, and the subjunctive mood ("the mood of possibility!") at a superhuman pace.
As a schoolboy bildungsroman, The History Boys makes Dead Poet's Society look like a 100-level survey class. Instead of Pupils vs. One Teacher, it's Pupils vs. Three Teachers, plus Pupils vs. Pupils, Teachers vs. Teachers, and Everybody vs. the (inevitably) Dull Headmaster. Plus: a gay Jewish kid and two gay teachers—the elder of them a minor-league molester who dismisses his cupping of the boys' balls while he gives them rides on his motorbike as "more benediction than gratification." Magically, the boys aren't scarred by his advances, just irritated.
Alan Bennett's crackling—and Tony Award–winning—script, with its restless young men, carries the show: "Most of the stuff poetry's about hasn't happened to us yet!" and "Fiona's my Western Front. Every inch of territory has been hotly contested." (To which his fellow pupil retorts: "It's not an invasion; it's a planned withdrawal... You're not disputing the territory; you're negotiating the pace of the occupation.")
The production at ArtsWest, directed by Christopher Zinovitch, isn't an apotheosis. Some actors wear their characters and accents like starchy, ill-fitting suits. Others storm around and wave their hands like stock traders. A few actors understand that less is more, especially Jody McCoy as the longsuffering teacher Mrs. Lintott. "History," she storms in an unusual outburst, "is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men." The History Boys is no exception.