By Bob Shuman
Plays are such complicated mechanisms that they usually can never be gotten right, which gives pathos to the writer and heroism to those involved in any production. There is always Romanticism in a theatrical endeavor, and there is probably no way that drama can’t fail on some level. Realists might say that the Internet only speeds the futility, but it is unlikely that artists will stop trying to use it—the Web can put them together, act as a research tool, and quantify trends. Development, however, the labor, not the speed of thought, can not be rushed—and may insist on being slow-moving, even with the foreknowledge that art rarely can inspire people to action. Two recent plays, Chasing the New White Whale, at La MaMa until December 9, and 36 Juniper, next door at Teatro Circulo—the production closed December 8–suffer the conundrum of wanting to act fast and needing to work slow. The creators have taken issues of contemporary importance: one concerning the opioid epidemic, as seen in the New England fishing industry, and the latter, on the effect of mass shootings on the millennial generation—but they are not fully explored plays and might be called hashtag shows; riveting concepts without the substance they need.
Chasing the New White Whale, which appears the more authentically infused of the two is repetitive and simplistic—taking a Chicken Little approach, when there needs to be more dramatic situation and example. The drug issues are real and devastating, as the evening clearly points out, but, artistically, Michael Gorman and Arthur Adair (the writer and director) can only see the alarm, instead of culling a kind of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the issue. Yeats might say that what the audience is viewing is wall paper: the ambiance is in place, with hard rock music and a fishing boat that comes onto the stage—but our exposure to the nautical context is too brief and the characters are types, stuck in a skeletal, updated version of Carousel. Maybe flash agitprop, with passages from Melville to give the production weight, is all the creators have in mind, but is awareness their only goal?
With Trey Adams, Khari Constantine, Chris Cornwell, Mark Daly, Mike Gorman, Rae Nelson, Alan Barnes Netherton, Meridith Nicholaev, Jim Reitz, Sabrina Fara Tosti, Victoria A. Villier
36 Juniper needs more documentary input—the real voices of those who have lived through mass shootings (here, the fictionalized story concerns survivors, who were part of such an event as teens). In Britain, a writer like David Hare, Victoria Brittain, or Gillian Slovo would likely see this concept in terms of verbatim theatre. Writers Jessika McQueen, Shannon McInally, and Alyssa Abraham seem to understand it in terms of celluloid—the space where their story is set might be the family room of a sitcom. They devolve into discussing teen crushes, weight issues, and marriage plans–a mishmash of Agatha Christie and The Big Chill, which doesn’t help anyone think about what seem like monthly murders today, in schools and other venues where young people meet. In 36 Juniper, psychological examinations are not mentioned, gun control isn’t argued, and the lack of followup press stories, after the shootings, goes undiscussed, as well as the effects on the community and demands for protecting youth. Of the six characters, only one offers a way for the audience to gain understanding of mass trauma—through a self-help book. In the play, the most immediate death is left outside in a snowstorm and an obvious person of interest, to the police investigation, goes unexamined for years . . .
Theatremakers want banner causes, but the path to rendering them may sometimes seem as harsh to the artists, as the subject areas they want to explore.
Directed by Greg Pragel with Brendan Byrne, Shannon McInally, Joe Reece, Jacob Dabby, Alyssa Abraham, Jessika McQueen
© by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photos: ‘Whale’: Carlos Cardona; ‘Juniper’: AK47 Division