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Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

Ferlinghetti Plays




Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

at Kingdom of the Spiders

I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1976 in a cappuccino bar around the corner from City Lights Books in San Francisco. I had come to talk to him about his plays, and I had come quite a long way, but he didn't want to talk about them. Instead, he maintained, they should speak for themselves. But Ferlinghetti's plays, which are all one-acts, are so infrequently produced that over the past dozen years I've never been in the right place at the right time, and haven't been able to see them. That is, until the other night when I entered the Kingdom of the Spiders, modestly disguised as a storefront about a block from the Loyola el stop.

Actually, Unfair Arguments With Existence is a collection of one-acts, three of which are performed in this production. First up is The Victims of Amnesia. A pregnant woman enters a run-down hotel and asks for a room, but she has trouble filling out the register and admits that she has a very bad memory. So bad is her memory that every time she comes in she asks the clerk to tell her her room number. During the night, the woman gives birth to three light bulbs, each smaller than the last, which she lowers from the hotel window, then snips their cords. In the final scene, a young woman, a girl, and a baby, in that order, enter and ask for their room number. The clerk becomes increasingly outraged at these goings-on, and marches up the stairs with a rifle to restore what he considers order.

Well, go figure, because I don't think I could offer more than a fraction of an interpretation. It's easy enough to pick up on the themes of dispossession, bureaucracy, and the transience of life, but I don't know how they fit together. Ferlinghetti cites the work of surrealist Andre Breton as an inspiration to this play, which at least provides a precedent for the stubbornly inscrutable imagery. But, silly, profound, or both, there's no denying the strange beauty of the birth scene, and the mother's casual, serene abandonment of her offspring as she cuts their cords.

Another French writer, Eugene Ionesco, comes to mind as an influence for The Alligation. The Alligation is the story of a young woman and her pet alligator. But Ladybird's pet, Shooky, has grown too big for the house and he spends a lot of time looking wistfully out the window. Enter, out of nowhere, the Blind Indian, a liberator of all things captive and divorced from nature. At first, the Indian only senses something wrong ("Some funny go on here"), but he soon assesses the situation as critical ("Heap clear. Heap bad scene"). Ladybird doesn't handle this crisis very well, clinging to Shooky and generally seeming like she wants to take her dress off, which she eventually does, lending the play some gratuitous cheap appeal. Of course, this sort of thing can only end in violence, like a Joseph Conrad nightmare, with the primitive forces of nature winning the day.

The Alligation, as you can imagine, is a little more accessible than The Victims of Amnesia. Shooky the alligator and the Blind Indian represent the oppressed and the dispossessed, respectively. And Ladybird, with her southern accent, is an obvious satire of Ladybird Johnson, whose lifelong interest in wildflowers occasionally makes the news, even these days. But back in 1962, when this play was written, the joke about Ladybird the earth mother had a little more cultural resonance. Ferlinghetti has some fun with the character of Ladybird, making her into a kind of Amanda Wingfield with a real live menagerie. But Ferlinghetti expands on Williams's theme of emotional parasitism, shaping the love/bondage/ownership complex into a political fable. No doubt it's because The Alligation is more easily understood, and just plain funny, that it's the most often produced of Ferlinghetti's plays.

Three Thousand Red Ants completes the evening's bill. This is a down-to-basics philosophical fantasy about male and female archetypes, respectively represented here by Fat and Moth. The two of them lie naked in bed, sleeping late, only fat can't sleep. So Fat picks up a copy of Remembrance of Things Past, volume one, and, like most of us, reads no further than the first line. Then Fat becomes antsy and keeps talking to Moth about this and that--current events, dreams, the past, the meaning of life--but Moth is uninterested. Moth would like to either sleep or fuck. She exists more in the here and now, in the immediacy of the flesh, whereas Fat is more concerned with poking his finger into that disturbing crack in the universe and answering the question, "Is life a muddle or a mystery?"

On the surface of it, and especially in the reading of it, you'd think this one-act would never play. And I didn't, so I was surprised to find that this was the most theatrical and the most satisfying play of the evening. In spite of Ferlinghetti's very personal and often opaque imagery, the basic situation is classic. What could be more philosophical, more typical of the human dilemma than a man and woman airing their differences in bed? Again, the specifics of this "unfair argument," and whether it's fair or unfair, is anyone's guess. But I definitely get the feeling that Fat and Moth are having the original argument, the one for which men and women, ever since, have only been getting even.

The qualified success of Three Thousand Red Ants is due in part to Peter Reinemann's performance as Fat. Reinemann, with his head shaved completely bald, is imposing enough just to look at. But Reinemann (as Fat) seems so genuinely preoccupied with the meaning of life that his bullet head, combined with that attitude of perplexed philosophical inquiry, makes for a very funny characterization. Rich Cotovsky's direction also helps make Three Thousand Red Ants work. Of the three directors responsible for the evening's bill, only Cotovsky shows any professional competence, distinguished largely by his sense of rhythm and his attention to mood and subtext.

Cotovsky also manages the only other noteworthy performance, as Shooky the alligator in The Alligation. No, he doesn't look much like an alligator--he's dressed in green and wears a few articles of scuba gear. Still, he seems reptilian, even though at times he reminded me of my cat. But perhaps Shooky's discontent, his vigils at the window, his abhorrence of baby talk aren't particularly feline, but rather indicative of some more universal expression. Maybe sometime, when you're looking out the window at work, you'll catch that same expression in the glass.

The rest of the acting is unremarkable except for its amateurishness. That's disappointing, yet it didn't bother me all that much because it's the work of true amateurs and not the polished exhibitionism of professional amateurs. However crude the production values in general, the emphasis is always on the play. Which strikes me as quite in the spirit of storefront theater. This seems like the appropriate context for Ferlinghetti's little plays, which are flawed and naive in terms of dramaturgy, yet as unpresuming as they are playful.

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