Birthrite | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Thunder Road Ensemble

at Angel Island

Judging from their name and the music they've chosen to open Daniel S. Taube's Birthrite, it seems fair to assume that Thunder Road Ensemble count Bruce Springsteen among their influences. Nothing wrong with that. The Boss's best songs are brilliant mini-dramas peopled with great characters--two-bit hustlers, con artists, big dreamers, low-down losers. But what Springsteen can do in two minutes, Thunder Road fails to accomplish in two hours. Rarely believable or dramatically involving, Birthrite remains woefully stillborn.

Taube's play, which he also directs, deals with difficult subjects--child pornography, incest, and family loyalty. The family at the center of Birthrite makes the warped crew of Pinter's The Homecoming look like something out of Leave It to Beaver. Judge (Don Blair), a child-porn producer, has been feebly clinging to his role as family patriarch after brutally mutilating his wife and burying her alive after she had sex with their repressed son Frank (Johnathan F. McClain). In addition to Frank, Judge has surrounded himself with a grim surrogate family. He treats the mentally disturbed Saven (David Keats) and ex-con Rafe (Ronnie Reporto) as his sons and keeps one of his former porn stars, Lita (Deborah King), around to act as incestuous mom to the boys. (She hasn't turned Judge on since she reached the age of 12.)

As the play opens, Lita has sprung Rafe from jail by sleeping with the governor. To see if prison has tempered Rafe's loyalty to him, Judge orders him to murder the feebleminded Saven, who is bound and gagged and thrown at Rafe's feet. Before Rafe can commit the crime, Judge reveals that he's only testing him. But when Judge discovers that Saven may have informed the cops about his porn business, he orders Rafe to kill his brother for real, offering him control of the family business as an incentive.

Through this convoluted mess of a plot, which grows less and less plausible as time wears on, Taube endeavors to demonstrate the effects of sexual abuse. Judge knows no expression of emotion except violence, and the only way his sons can prove their love for him is through murder. Lita, sexually abused as a child and physically abused as an adult, turns to Frank for love, offering to sleep with him and replace his mother. But Frank, disconnected from his own emotions, slaps her instead. The abuse of Saven has led him to babble childishly and channel his anxieties into Twinkie eating, while Rafe--the play's conscience--tries to escape the family's history of violence, which he has learned was responsible for the deaths of his natural parents.

In his director's note, Taube presents the thesis his play is meant to prove. "Abuse manifests itself in many different forms--physically, sexually and emotionally," he writes. "It all adds up to the same thing: a denial of intimacy. All abuse is a form of denying a person the intimacy they need, so that their form of touch may be controlled." This statement begs a couple of questions. Does Taube mean to suggest that one who is abused is necessarily seeking intimacy from his or her abuser? Are all men who beat women like Frank: just afraid of getting close? This is debatable to say the least. Taube's point that the abused frequently become abusers and perpetuate a cycle of physical and sexual violence is well-taken if predictable, but since his characters' actions defy logic, their behavior doesn't prove much.

The unrealistic plot makes little sense. Brothers wave guns at each other as if they were flags. When Frank slaps Lita she demands never to be touched again, but when Judge begins strangling her she becomes sexually aroused. Judge goes apeshit when he finds out Saven might have squealed to the police, but later we find out that he's been paying off the police, so obviously they know about his business anyway. Taube seems to think it's enough to answer every question about plot and character with the catch-all explanation "because they were abused," but this is neither sufficient nor credible. Taube's characters are case studies in search of personalities.

Birthrite is liberally sprinkled with Biblical imagery, profanity, and trite speechifying. Taube scores points for creativity if not for poetry with one character's exclamation that "You don't know fuck about dick" and another's description of a man who smiled at him as if "I got come on my tie." The actors labor valiantly to carry off lines like "There's no such thing as love or hate or any of that shit" and "Some scars never leave you," but their efforts are in vain.

As a director, Taube does not serve his flimsy script well. The actors tiptoe around his words, as if they were a sacred text that would be defiled if they committed too fully. The staging is inert and repetitive. If I had a dime for every time one character demonstrated power over another by grasping his face in his hands, I'd probably have about two bucks. And though there might be some dramatic effect in closing a scene with a character meaningfully eyeing a significant object, such as a gun or piece of evidence, it's gone after three or four times.

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