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Communication Breakdown

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Crossing Boundaries II: The Tower of Babel Project

Strawdog Theatre Company

I'm sure Strawdog's grant writers had a field day filling out the forms for this production, an evening of one-acts concerned with the topic of "language and communication." Who could find anything objectionable in this theme? No one. And that's a problem. The topic is so bland and simpleminded--what theater isn't about either language or communication?--that it's not really a unifying theme at all. It's like a chef creating a dinner around the idea of food.

Hot air about "communication" makes great copy for press releases, theater listings, and grant applications--I notice the project was partially funded by CityArts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Illinois Arts Council--but hardly provides suitable building material for enlightening theater. Onstage, Strawdog's "Tower of Babel" is a tiny, unimpressive thing: six short demiplays, some diverting, some tedious, most of them long on talk and short on insight.

The best piece in the show is Antonio Sacre's charming autobiographical one-person performance Buscando Papito ("Looking for the Cuban"), directed by James Lasko, which explores with straightforwardness and disarming honesty Sacre's life and hard times as the son of a Cuban father and Irish mother. To his father's family, his awkwardness with Spanish makes him "the gringo"; to his Anglo friends his darker features and family history make him "the spic." Doomed to remain an outsider, Sacre leaps from one embarrassing situation to another--elected Hispanic Boy of the Year, he is terrorized by the thought of dancing with the Hispanic Girl of the Year because he, of all people, doesn't know how to salsa--but he always lands on his feet. Over the course of this superbly acted 15-minute monologue he creates compelling, readily identifiable portraits of his family and friends, and in the process gives us the sort of rare glimpse into another's life that makes for great theater.

Sadly, no other play in this series equals Sacre's achievement, though Dorothy Allison's Deciding to Live comes close. Adapted by Jamie Pachino and Amy Fenton from Allison's preface to her collection of short stories Trash, this monologue is well written, and Pachino, who performs it, deliver's Allison's careful, tuneful prose in a most beguiling southern accent. Unfortunately, Deciding to Live doesn't really tell us a story; it only tells us it's going to tell us a story. And just when we are most eager to hear about Allison's long, circuitous journey from poor white trashdom to that moment in adulthood when she decided she must be a writer or nothing else, it ends. While this may be appropriate for a preface, it makes for very frustrating theater.

The rest of the show runs the gamut from mediocre to pretty awful. Marion McClinton's one-act exploring communication between African-American men and women, Stones and Bones, has an intriguing structure--scenes alternate between two couples, one young and one middle-aged--but it ends abruptly, having failed to build any kind of dramatic tension. Michael Burke's Wama-Wama Zing Bing applies the same topic to white urban professionals and comes up with a story so shopworn--boy meets girl, boy fucks girl, girl tells boy she loves him, and boy withdraws, scared of commitment--that even the saddest moments in the story leave the audience unmoved. Not even Burke's minor innovation--the boy and girl coo at each other in a private language that sounds a lot like the lyrics to "Shaboom Shaboom" or "Tutti Frutti"--makes this very old tale seem new.

The same problem afflicts David Ives's trifling English Made Simple, also about a boy and girl who meet and fall in love, or at least lust. Taken from Ives's "All in the Timing," a collection of his short plays about "language and communication," English Made Simple collects in one place all of Ives's worst habits: his glib wit, his shallow insight, his use of daring structures to disguise his fear of new ideas. Still, with the right cast and the right director, this one-act would be at least tolerably diverting. Here, with an off-the-mark cast stumbling through Alison Zell's all-thumbs direction, Ives's words seem exceptionally annoying and false.

Which brings us to the lowest point in the show, Molly Burns's long, boring retelling of that tired old story from Genesis--the one about the snake and the tree and that silly couple who one day discovered they were naked and blushed. Created through improv by the cast, Adam and Eve is every bit as tame and literal as you would expect from the title. It explores none of the more intriguing elements in the biblical story: the weird way Eve is born from Adam, the even weirder way God seems to dare Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, the fact that a second, contradictory creation story appears just a few lines later. Even more annoying is the way the more patriarchal elements of the myth, such as the line in which God punishes Adam for "listening to his wife," are repeated without comment.

For all its literalism, there's not even anything particularly heartfelt or spiritual about this version. In fact from the sloppy, thoughtless way it's performed you'd never know that this story came from one of the central books in our culture. Then again, I don't suppose one should expect an insightful adaptation of a biblical story from a show that proudly calls itself "The Tower of Babel Project," as if the Tower of Babel were a good thing and not a symbol of our species' grandiosity.

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