Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Truth & Beauty"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


by Ping Chong, in collaboration with Jeffrey Rose and Michael Rohd

directed by Michelle A. Baxter

S … Shawn LeCount
M … Mark VanDerzee
Stage Hand Left … Mason Sand
Stage Hand Right ... Joshua McCarey

Last year at this time, the late, lamented Market Theater premiered REASON, Ping Chong’s performance piece that turned Boston audiences into question marks and left me stymied for days, not only because of its fractured storytelling and those sliding screens that turned it into a cosmic puppet show but because the production was told primarily in images. Our brains rebel against images: we want a Beginning, Middle and End to our entertainment. Order is a man-made concept, however; Nature has no use for calendars or clocks --- nor do artists like Mr. Chong.

A theatre image is fleeting, gone before you know it; Memory trails in its wake, picking and discarding --- not the most reliable of collectors. You reach for “fascinating”, “brilliant”, “moving”, etc. but, in the end, words fail. Productions such as REASON are better felt than thought, which make them subjective viewing; no one is right or wrong in his or her interpretation. One year later, I’m still not sure what REASON was all about, but neither can I forget what unfolded out of it --- the professor who suffers a breakdown and slowly dissolves into the dark, wearing a see-through mask of her own face; the ensemble as rows of Weebles, bobbling to Bebel Gilberto’s, “Close Your Eyes”; the star-crossed strangers on a train hurtling through the frozen wastes of Russia --- words fail me; you had to be there. Still, seeing REASON did prepare me for Company One’s production of Mr. Chong’s TRUTH & BEAUTY: there is more fractured storytelling and, instead of sliding screens, three television screens which serve as a media Chorus.

TRUTH & BEAUTY begins with a match struck on the screens; the piece ends with that match being applied (live) to the fuse of a homemade bomb meant to blow up the very theatre the audience is seated in. What happens in between those struck matches? I can only tell you what I felt. In REASON, I felt --- perhaps, finally, all I felt was the wonder of Life itself; a world in a drop of water. With TRUTH & BEAUTY, I felt provoked --- not at the material, but towards Mr. Chong: he presents America as the familiar Nightmare: cold, materialistic and obsessed with violence. I also felt just the wee bit bored: Mr. Chong says nothing new about Bad, Bad America, and he says it in the first ten minutes --- even his images are dull. In other words, TRUTH & BEAUTY is a throw-back to the happenings and antiwar pieces of the 1960s --- as dated as Jean-Claude Van Itallie’s once-timely AMERICA, HURRAH, which startled audiences during the Vietnam era. Now that we are at war, bad timing could even throw TRUTH & BEAUTY into an unfavorable light --- for better or for worse, the Eagle is soaring again; right now, the American public may not want a red, white and blue butterfly pinned to the wall, as depicted in the production’s poster.

(REASON was also an original work, created for the Market Theater; what I saw --- felt --- was a true collaboration between Mr. Chong and his actors, made up of professionals and students. TRUTH & BEAUTY has been performed since 1999; thus, it arrived in Boston not as an Event but as a script --- hence my feeling I was watching something not fresh, but thawed out.)

Looking over what I scribbled in the dark, I come up with dozens of phrases; ironically, what I scribbled are pretty much what audiences will be seeing. A sampling:

* men shaving; commercials (video)

* men beating chairs (?)

* 2 men w/rifles --- defend their rifles (wolves on screens)

* S.O.A: School of the Americas (promotes Human Rights abuses)

* interrogation of a mass murderer --- high school student

* kids playing with guns

* father/son fishing --- rifles used as fishing rods (wolf on screen)

* conference on how to start a new store in town (mother/daughter bonding through commercialism)

* one man shaving vs. factory girl in El Salvador (makes Disney shirts, $0.28/hr.)

* actors as apes vs. video of selling commodities

* The Correctional Corporation of America --- taking over prisons; getting the poor out of the way; free labor

* hit man (?) holding rabbi hostage --- whose God is real?

And so on.

TRUTH & BEAUTY has two parallel threads: (1) a young loner who comes to see that his destiny is to blow up Boston [or whatever city it is playing in], and (2) the culture that has produced him and, in the end, intends to exploit him. The young man drives across America; hearing the thoughts of the drivers he sees in his rear view mirror; is he also the high school murderer? Is he the fishing son whose father might pack off to military school because he has impregnated a girl? Is he the one pointing a gun at the rabbi? Or is Mr. Chong implying that he is but one of many, many troubled American youths? (You won’t find the answers in Mr. Chong’s script; there are no stage directions regarding who the two actors are playing from scene to scene --- even their tag names remain consistent: the first initial of the actors’ first names.)

The performers, playing multiple roles, are good. Shawn LeCount is “S”; Mark VanDerzee is “M”. Yes, they could also represent Sadism and Masochism: Mr. LeCount plays the Bully --- either grinning or scowling --- and Mr. VanDerzee leans towards cringers and whiners; that troubled young man in particular. I say “performers” as opposed to “actors”: Messrs. LeCount and VanDerzee imitate, impersonate, teach in the Brechtian sense --- and they are amazing, with spin-on-a-dime switches that would leave an athlete panting for breath. They are still young(ish) artists --- as well may be director Michelle A. Baxter (?); thus, all three go for the obvious --- the rot behind the toothpaste smile; Mr. LeCount, in particular, continues to pummel us repeatedly even after Mr. Chong has made his point (Bad, Bad America). Silently assisting them are Mason Sand and Joshua McCarey --- a pair of lab-coated mutes, who lay out the artillery, turn on the video cameras and strike appropriate poses when needed. (There is no mention of these two characters in the script.)

Again, this is what I felt; you may feel otherwise. In fact, TRUTH & BEAUTY makes a clever point about the word versus the image:

* men shaving; commercials (video). S and M square off, shaving with electric razors and alternate reciting gibberish about magical beings who effortlessly do what we poor mortals cannot. At the end of their duet, the television screens play, at a clip, the well-known commercials that S and M have been describing. What sounds absurd when uttered makes perfect sense when seen.

POSTSCRIPT: I attended TRUTH & BEAUTY on opening night, which meant I had to push through the peace rally held in the usually sedate Copley Square. Now THERE was imagery, America in a nutshell, if you will (Peace v. War). Again, words fail to capture the surreality of the rain-soaked protesters, the microphoned voices bouncing off the church, the library, the hotel; the gleaming motorcycles parked before the two Green Ladies symbolizing Man’s achievements in the arts; dozens of police officers ready to club down any violence, etc. --- and they had all vanished by the time TRUTH & BEAUTY let out; Copley Square had been swept clean again. TRUTH & BEAUTY will be with us for a few more weeks, but I doubt even Mr. Chong can top that particular Overture, or the eerie silence of that Finale.

"Truth & Beauty" (20 March-12 April)
Boston Center for the Arts
539 Tremont Street
1 (617) 426-2787

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