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Curiouser and Curiouser

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Laurel's Love

at the Athenaeum Theatre

At first you might think it's some kind of cheesy Christmas pageant. We see a very blond little girl dressed like a Bible character, her white gown secured with rope. She mimes digging in a garden as she sings a song (her own composition, we're told) about how the "sun keeps shining its love on me." Her bedridden old grandma is played by a very young woman in a ridiculous white wig; they speak with that formal, contractionless diction reserved for the Ancient and the Allegorical. The little girl, Laurel, has decided to cheer Grandma up by transplanting all the garden flowers into pots and putting them in the old lady's room--a gesture that's apparently meant to illustrate her great good-heartedness. Unfortunately, Laurel's mother doesn't take it that way. Walking in to find piles of dirt on her nice clean floor--never mind the empty flower beds outside--Mom somehow fails to see the beauty. She takes poor Laurel very roughly in hand. End of scene.

What's next? A visit from a certain beatific Nazarene? A lesson in suffering the little children? A reconciliation appropriate to the season? Maybe a miracle for Grandma? Well, no. When the lights come up again Laurel is a grown woman. Mom's disapproval has clearly had no effect on her at all. She's still the sweet, recklessly generous innocent she was in the first scene. A couple of protohippies, she and her nine-year-old son, Jonathan, do "the Butterfly Dance" in their hidden meadow, learn lessons from the flowers, and discover Perfect Love by staring into each other's eyes. "Do not ever forget," she tells Jonathan, "how beautiful you are inside." It turns out to be her parting message. On the way home from the meadow, Laurel's once again taken roughly in hand--this time by some troglodytic villagers in dark robes who find her comportment both sinful and unhygienic. They strip her, douse her with water (one of at least four baths in the show, not all of them voluntary), and pelt her with what appear to be fresh pine needles while calling her dirty names. When this strangely sensual torture fails to arouse any remorse in Laurel, the villagers get serious and stone her to death.

And then things turn weird. So weird, in fact, that there came a point in this approximately 80-minute, intermissionless new play, written and directed by Joseph Clair Schmitt, when I stopped thinking of it as amateurish and started seeing it as theatrical outsider art.

Outsider art is generally defined as the idiosyncratic creative product of an unschooled sensibility. I don't know for certain whether Schmitt is an unschooled dramatist, but this creative product of his is sure as hell idiosyncratic. In an odd way it reminds me of that archetypal example of outsider art, Henry Darger's 15,000-page illustrated epic called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Though Laurel's Love isn't violent or perverse or copious on the scale of Darger's tome, it's the same in essence: a fragmentary manifestation of an elaborate self-contained universe characterized fundamentally by a struggle between two forces: one good and true, the other evil and utterly false.

Darger voted the straight Manichaean ticket when it came to dualities: spirit good, body satanic. Based on the somewhat confused evidence of Laurel's Love, I'd say Schmitt makes his distinctions more along Woodstockian love-freak lines. Pure good is pure love, which is free and infinite and flows through the senses; evil is hatred expressed as prudishness, shame, and a kind of militant cleanliness. For both Darger and Schmitt (not to mention Michael Jackson), the consummate image of goodness is a prepubescent child--the kind Darger equates with angels and Schmitt with uninhibited innocence. Darger's version of the equation led him to horrific visions of his angels being mangled by the armies of the flesh. In Laurel's Love the consequence of idealizing presexual innocence is less repulsive but just as problematic: sex is simultaneously exalted as love's literal body and despised as a barrier to perfect innocence, which is perfect love. So ultimately the spirit good/body bad duality holds for Schmitt as it does for Darger. In the end, Schmitt comes across as a Manichaean who may have had the advantage of reading Whitman.

Personally, I don't believe in the innocence of children. I believe in the ignorance of children and the possibility of their being trained out of it. Schmitt's philosophical nostalgia for a nine-year-old's worldview is as repugnant to me as the, shall we say, surgical means by which one of his characters reclaims that worldview (it's a long story). Still, Laurel's Love has a certain charm if you can separate yourself from the desire to be entertained and view it as an interesting artifact, like a Lee Godie drawing or a yard full of cement religious figures. The language is embarrassing, the thinking chaotic, the design laughable, the acting bad, and the subtext sometimes pretty creepy to contemplate. But the sense of passionate, patient obsession makes this show a genuine curiosity.

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