Thursday, July 8, 2010

Plays From the Alley—Week One

Posted By on Thu, Jul 8, 2010 at 10:18 AM

Alley Repertory Theater kicked off its second season of readings. Plays From the Alley, with Boise State professor Phil Atlakson’s new “comedy,” The Primordial State of Every Single Thing.

The play is the story of a couple facing divorce due to the stress of coping with their adult son’s girlfriend, a Japanese anime body pillow he has vividly imagined a personality for. Though the play is a work in progress, I couldn’t help but feel that it is a work that should not progress. As a viewer I was appalled. As a writer, I was insulted. And as a theater fan, I was disgusted that it was ever considered for anything other than the “round file.”

Yes, this is an extreme position for a work of honest criticism. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to take any other position on a play as rife with unrealistic plot and character shifts and derogatory cultural portrayals, and so obscenely sexist that the moral is best summed up as “women should tolerate rape so as not to bruise a man’s ego.”

The protagonist is an unsympathetic Irvin Skirball, a university professor who feels he has kept his youthful vitality by serial-raping his wife for 30 years and who blames his son Jimmy’s predilection for gamer culture on his disinterest in treating women the same. The play opens with Irwin’s concerns about testicular cancer and as he prattles on for 10 pages of improbable dialog about his views on sex and gender roles and the basis of the American identity to his wife, Fotini, who serves as little more than a sounding board for his rants, I want it to spread. By the second scene, when his son—who is little more than another non-character for him to sling venom at—is introduced, I considered walking out had I not been there on assignment.

In the third scene, when Fotini tells Irwin he is a rapist, I thought things might change, that it had all been an effective setup for a gigantic and epic turn. But several lines later, Fotini quickly returns to being little more than a sounding board for Irwin’s now bruised ego. It worsens in the next act when Fotini confesses to Jimmy that she has been trying to protect him from his father’s brutality and Jimmy’s response is to lambaste her for ruining his father’s fantasy world by not allowing him to remain blissfully ignorant of his status as a serial rapist.

In the end, when Irwin tries to redeem himself by accepting that he, like his son, lives in a fantasy world, and that he is “a gamer at heart”—giving him something to bond with his son over—it’s even more infuriating. The idea that 30 years of rape and abuse can be washed away and made right with a simple admission that video games aren’t all bad is insulting in a moral sense. Nor does it track as believable in a narrative sense—especially as this was not a character worth redeeming.

Not everyone in the audience was offended. A third or so were laughing heartily. But I wasn't the only one appalled either. Understand it wasn’t the subject matter that was offensive. There is a compelling, potentially even funny story to be told about a marital rape and gamer culture. But Atlakson’s treatment wasn’t funny; it was mean-spirited like a racist joke. Had he given credit to gamer culture or the gravity of the situation as anything other than a punchline—like Hunt Holeman’s play Willow Jade, which handles gamer culture and statutory rape in a hilarious and compelling manner—then the play might be salvageable. But considering the total contempt that Atlakson showed to the subject matter the first time around makes this reviewer doubt that will ever happen.

The only positive thing to be found from the reading of The Primordial State of Every Single Thing—and I was looking—were the performances by Alley Underground director Nick Garcia in the role of Jimmy and Aaron Kieser as a fellow gamer, both of whom managed to somehow portray amusing characterizations from such an abysmal script.

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