WE'RE JUST ONE HAWAIIAN DANCER
Luna Stage Company
at the Theatre Shoppe
Brach's manufactures a candy known as "Perky." A Perky is very like a Chuckle, only it's shaped differently and individually wrapped in clear cellophane. In the hushed sanctuary of a theater you can make a lot of distracting noise unwrapping a Perky, not to mention additional noise by fishing in the bag for more. Well, the night I attended We're Just One Hawaiian Dancer, there was a couple in the audience driven into a feeding frenzy by Perkys. As both theater and audience were small--there were only ten of us in the audience altogether--and the play itself witless and self-indulgent, a major theme of the evening was cellophane. The best line of the evening was delivered by another member of the audience who snapped, as he exited the theater, "Hope you enjoyed your dinner." The couple, however, didn't seem to know what he meant.
After they left, I examined the candy wrappers under their seats. There was even one intact Perky there, licorice, no doubt lost in the darkness and chaos. A young woman who had sat in front of me commented, "They were just going to town." They sure were. They reminded me of those dull Lutherans who play minor roles in Garrison Keillor's monologues. God only knows where that couple came from, whoever they were, the missing link in audience-development campaigns. Perhaps they were lured by the title of the show, with visions of Don Ho in their sugar-glazed eyes. And, just as mysteriously, they were gone, with only a pile of litter to mark their passage. At first they annoyed me, but after sitting through Hawaiian Dancer, I admired them.
I admired the couple because they were blissfully unaware of themselves, and because the actors onstage were aware of nothing but themselves. I admired the almost primal, oral obsession of the couple's self-indulgence, which was far more honest than the narcissism of the play. The couple was real; the characters were not. Finally, I admired the revenge exacted by the couple, even though I'm certain it wasnt intentional, because they fulfilled the highest function of a true audience: they had informed upon, by their very presence, the worth and meaning of the play.
So perhaps I should discuss the play. I ask your patience, so far, with what may seem to be a frivolous digression. But as I hope to argue convincingly, too seldom criticism fails to consider the audience. The view is myopic. And theater itself often fails to consider the audience at all. Hawaiian Dancer is a case in point.
First, what does the catchy title, We're Just One Hawaiian Dancer, mean? That's the relevant question because--as in most new plays by people who fancy themselves poets but who maliciously decide to inflict their talents on the theater--the purpose of the play is to justify the concept so cutely captured in the title. So the "we" are Sib and Daisy. Sib is an artist. She lives in an artfully trashed apartment, acts butch, and suffers a heavy identity crisis of undergraduate proportions. This crisis is enlarged upon by Sib's unexplained guilt feelings over her mother's suicide. The plot thickens with the appearance of Daisy, the repressed other half of Sib's personality--the nice girl, Sib's "useless fluff" as she puts it. Daisy takes up residence in Sib's closet, no less, where her (their) mother's peach bathrobe just happens to be prominently displayed. The ensuing psychodrama, as you might reluctantly imagine, is resolved with the reintegration of Sib and Daisy, which (to my personal horror and nausea) is celebrated by Sib's performance of a hula.
I'm afraid I skimmed over a few details. There are some songs, propelled by the accompaniment of a dulcimer, and the usual nightmare sequences in which the actors wear grotesque masks and deliver intertwining monologues. And there's some rather painful poetic imagery. OK, don't take my word for it. Just strap yourself into your poetry-appreciation seats. "Your eyes are as calm as lakes. When I laughed with you, I went skinny dipping in your eyes." You want more? "Vegetable barley soup would warm us. Like an all-black cat sitting in our laps." That's enough for now. If you want more, you know where to find it. Take your Perkys.
Not that the whole play is this bad. Most of it? You bet--as bad as a warm, flat Old Style with a cigarette butt floating in it. But I did really like one of the songs. I'm not sure if this was one of the nightmare sequences, but Frankie (a punk friend of Sib's) appears wearing an alligator mask. He sings, "I'm a hungry gator," and tries to persuade Daisy to offer herself up as lunch. He has a noose around her neck and drags her toward him as Sib pulls and entreats from the other side. Daisy, in her white nightgown, struggles operatically in the middle, as if she were in a musical spoof of The Perils of Pauline. I loved it. If this is an example of what playwright Ellen Boscov can do when she doesn't take herself too seriously, then maybe she should lighten up.
Certainly the audience--assuming that Boscov has an audience in her immediate future--could use a break from the theme of the tortured artist. Artists, I believe, should masturbate and torture themselves in the privacy of their garrets. When they do venture out into the real world, they might take the opportunity to look around them in the hope of discovering something that may ennoble their art.
As it is, Boscov's preoccupation with psychological and emotional baby fat, and her agenda (as stated in the program) to find "a way to get essential, personal needs met" stands in the way of creating independent, viable characters. The cast, in turn, are thwarted in their own desperate attempts to put flesh on these characters and to make their dialogue sound like something other than the clattering of a sentimentally abused typewriter. Of the three actors, Meg Boscov (as Daisy) provides the most coherent caricature--an infantile, exuberant personification of sugar and spice and everything nice. Sort of like a Perky.
Some new plays provoke great disappointment. They do so by falling from lofty heights, heights established solely by their own pretensions. Sure, Hawaiian Dancer has its pretensions--its bogus poetry, its ignorant examination of personality dissociation, its radical kitsch--but it's hard to take seriously. And so its fall is negligible. It stumbles out the basement window. It steps on an upturned rake. Still, there's an impact, and in that impact something to be learned.
For instance, I learned a new lesson in conceptual terrorism involving the use of cellophane. I learned something about my job. You see, people are always reminding me of the role of the theater critic. I'm told that the critic has a responsibility to nurture nascent yet intrepid steps forward into the artistic unknown. And so through sensitivity, support, and pseudointellectual cheering, the critic may point the way to the empty theaters of tomorrow. But I'm short on nurturing. Blind, helpless kittens need nurturing. Playwrights need to be weaned. Don't you see? There are people out there, eating Perkys by the bagful, and they will continue to eat Perkys until some playwright figures out how to nurture them.