In 2007, days after the director’s death, Jonathan Rosenbaum dissed Ingmar Bergman in The New York Times. That’s when I started mentally marking Bergman’s birthday the way I do for Shakespeare in April. This year I almost forgot until July 13, a day before the actual date–but I had been thinking of Bergman anyway, specifically with regard to Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz’s 2001 play A Bicycle Country, now playing on Theatre Row at the Lion Theater until July 25. If Anna in the Tropics is both Anna Karenina told in Tampa, Florida during the ‘20s and its own unique, specific composition, I began wondering if Cruz’s play about a revolutionary crackdown, escape, and journey into surrealism, similarly, was a refraction of Bergman’s Shame, which follows a similar trajectory. Perhaps it was even a correction of it.
Although subject to debate, Bergman, at least, felt there were problems with his screenplay. “The first half of the film is really nothing more than an endlessly drawn-out prologue that ought to have been over and done with in ten minutes. What happens later could have been built upon, fleshed out, and developed as much as was needed,” he wrote in Images. And that’s exactly what Cruz, such a master of finding the beginning and through-line of a drama, does in A Bicycle Country, locating a structure for his analogous material that works (especially for the stage). As he does in Anna, Cruz introduces a character at the beginning that, ultimately, is tragic—actually, in this play, all the characters will be. Ines, a nurse, enters the services of an invalid, Julio. As their finances deteriorate, and Cuba reels from being cut off from Soviet oil shipments during the early ‘90s–after the fall of the Iron Curtain–they dream of freedom. In a country disparaging the fact that the economy is being run using bicycles imported from China instead of heavy machinery, they plot an escape to Miami by building a raft.
Writing Shame during the Vietnam era, Bergman was interested in demonstrating the violence of a world caught in civil war as well as a war taking place in a relationship. The two main characters, Jan and Eva, talk about their dreams in a film that, ultimately, becomes a dream. Cruz, ever elegant, offers hallucinations in A Bicycle Country—he also details a love story, which reminds us of Anna in the Tropics. In Shame, however, the relationship between the two leading characters is already corroding from the top. They have less of a distance to go in which to fall apart. Cruz, however, can use his entire first act to “grow” the relationship. I assume, Bergman would believe that it was organically more important that his characters’ internal worlds reflect the external environment (or maybe even vice-versa), but this may also be why he felt the first half of the film was largely an introduction. Nevertheless, Bergman’s carnality is more powerful than Cruz’s sensuality, even if trying to choose one vision over the other is a fool’s game. Bergman hits harder and deeper, basically, asking us to watch human beings being reduced to uncivilized animals. Cruz’s characters retain their humanity, no matter their oppression by regime or natural environment. He impresses with his theatricality (wearing pillowcases and walking into the ocean with an umbrella), but he never shows the human being debased—his heroine accepts a new love, for example, whereas Liv Ullmann’s Eva takes her lovers with a dead face.
As Bergman writes, “Once the outer violence stops and the inner violence begins, Shame becomes a good film. When society can no longer function, the main characters lose their frame of reference. Their social relations cease. The people crumble. The weak become ruthless. The woman, who had been the stronger falls apart. Everything slips away into a dream play that ends on board the refugee boat. Everything is shown in pictures, as in a nightmare. In a nightmare, I felt at home. In the reality of war, I was lost.” Cruz, dealing with the similar issues is able to flesh out his second act in a way that Bergman might have hoped for, but this leads to the further complication of trying to dramatically record the spaces of the mind before death. The trick, as the action of A Bicycle Country dissipates into speeches, is to not let the hallucinations come across as merely theatrical without taking us to a deeper level of understanding. At least on the page, Naomi Wallace’s war play, No Such Cold Thing portrays a more disturbing interpretation of characters lost in their imaginations before dying. What she demonstrates is the almost coherent, yet airtight nature of dreams, nightmares, and hallucinations; put it another way, she makes the moments before life ceases artistically believable, in as much as anyone can understand the experience while still being alive.
Bergman does write a beautiful aria for Eva at the end of the film:
I had a strange dream, it was absolutely real. I was walking along a very beautiful street. On one side were white, open houses, with arches and pillars. On the other side was a lovely park. Under the big tree by the street ran cold dark-green water. I came to a high wall, which was overgrown with roses. Then an aircraft came, roaring down and set fire to the roses. They burned with a clear flame . . . .”
(Humorously, at about the time this was written, Ullmann was living with Bergman and became afraid that when asked about her dreams, her answers would show up as part of the script the next day. )
But Cruz can write a monologue as well, here for the character Pepe:
I’ve heard what the ocean does to people. I’ve heard. Like the desert. A fever. You see things. A mirage. You play tricks on the eyes. Whatever became of the day, eh? Whatever became of that day when I was a child, and my father brought the whole family together and said, “We’re moving to the coast, and I’m going to show you the sea. And we sold all the chickens to buy the bus fare. We sold the cows and the pigs to rent a house close to the seashore. Look . . . Look . . . You can’t trick me! I can close my eyes. . . . and see you like the first day, when the driver said, “We’re in Havana. We’re by the seawall.” And I climbed down from the bus, with my eyes closed, and my father said, “Open your eyes, Pepe. This is the sea. This is the sea.” And when I saw you, you were blue and big as the falling sky. Calm and full as a bowl of blue soup. . . .
Given that the current New York production of A Bicycle Country is a showcase, I think it’s most important to look at Cruz’s writing first. The actors, in this performance, are constricted during the first half of the play by a set that is part cleverness and hazard. The script lets the characters speak, but on a small stage the working space is made even smaller by having the actors perform on a platform. That the set reconfigures for the second half shows its utilitarian aspect, but here the sound, commendable as it is in giving the feel of being lost on the sea, does not take us further into the depths of hallucination. Better, was Matt Tierney’s design for last season’s Blasted at Soho Rep, which also sculpted sound in the last act. The actors here, not necessarily first choices from central casting, work to find their characters’ essences, but a Cuban flavor is sacrificed. What is more relevant to discuss is that A Bicycle Country is a compelling play being performed during a time of compelling theater—and that’s something to celebrate.
Oh . . . How much should we buy Bergman’s criticism of his structure for Shame? Once I was in Central Park in the middle of the night. A homeless woman, quite educated, came up to me, and we started talking about Bergman films as she offered me pennies she had found. The one she remembered best was about a couple living during a war. That, of course, is Shame. Its impact remains.
Happy birthday, Ingmar!!
© 2009 by Bob Shuman
A Bicycle Country
by Nilo Cruz; directed by Gil Ron
Presented by East 3rd Productions
The Lion Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
New York, New York 10036
July 3 – July 25
Ticket Central: 212-279-4200