Leonce und Lena
at the Athenaeum Theatre
Requiem in a Light-Aqua Room
at the Athenaeum Theatre
Georg Buchner's three surviving dramatic texts show the playwright wrestling with divergent styles in a struggle to convey his bleak worldview. The three extant plays of Sean Graney, artistic director of the Hypocrites, reveal much the same process. Both artists want to build on centuries-old theatrical traditions yet shred the niceties of conventional theater to expose life's raw nerves. Two Graney efforts now playing at the Athenaeum--he's directing the Hypocrites in Buchner's Leonce und Lena while Terrapin Theatre performs his own new Requiem in a Light-Aqua Room one floor down--show both playwrights' imaginations careening full tilt. Requiem also marks the moment when Graney, who's always been intriguing, graduates to mature artist.
Leonce und Lena is Graney's second pass at Buchner. In 1997, as part of the Hypocrites' inaugural season, he directed Woyzeck (not actually a full play but a fragment found after Buchner's death). That scrappy but awkward production, crammed into the dank basement of the old Voltaire, consisted largely of postcollegiate posturing and cheesy face paint. (Who could have foreseen that only three years later the Hypocrites would mount a sophisticated, nuanced, provocative production of The Cherry Orchard?) With his return to Buchner, Graney exploits his trademark techniques--stark design, inflated acting, self-reflexive presentation--to create an explosive, richly unpleasant affair.
Historians usually paint Buchner as a committed political revolutionary. While working on his doctorate about the nervous systems of fish at the University of Zurich, he founded the first communist organization in Germany, the Society of Human Rights. He engaged in political protests, and after distributing subversive literature fled to Strasbourg while many of his coconspirators were jailed and tortured. His plays and essays are fiery in their defiance of the existing social order, which as he saw it exposed the poor to crushing forces from which they could never escape.
But Buchner gave up all political activity after his flight to Strasbourg. And even at the height of his involvement with the Society of Human Rights he wrote that "all the activity and shouting of individuals is a foolish waste of time. They write, but no one reads them; they shout, but no one hears them; they act, but no one helps them." A deep strain of existential ambivalence runs through his life and work--he seems doubtful about the usefulness of any action. Humanity, he wrote, is "just foam on the wave." This forerunner of expressionist playwriting died at the age of 23, in 1837, of typhus.
Buchner poured every ounce of his cynicism into Prince Leonce, whose absurd battle with boredom fuels Leonce und Lena. Leonce can find nothing better to do with his days than spit on a rock 365 times in a row, convinced that human beings "fall in love, marry, and multiply out of boredom, and finally they die out of boredom." His childish father has betrothed him to the Princess Lena, a plan that will greatly interfere with Leonce's commitment to idleness. With his even more cynical sidekick, Valerio, he escapes to the country, where he runs into an alluring young woman--none other than Princess Lena. Since Buchner is satirizing the theatrical conventions of his day, she's earnestly trying to become a fairy-tale princess, spouting poetic rhapsodies about flowers and dragonflies--while wrestling with the realization that "there are people who are unhappy, incurably so, simply because they exist."
For this play Buchner drew heavily on the conventions of commedia dell'arte, then a nearly 300-year-old tradition of stock rustic characters in cartoonish, often ribald situations. Graney transforms the genre into menacing farce, inflating the characters' passions to such volatile extremes that they often quake as though ready to explode. Intensifying every garish hue, he puts his actors in flat white makeup and ugly striped stockings. A lurid song and dance in German opens the show, after which a stern clown barking into a megaphone announces the beginning of the first act. Graney repeats the dance number at the top of each of the three acts, as though intent on wearing out his audience through grating repetition.
But then grating repetition is humanity's defining crisis in Buchner's view. And Graney's actors seem on the verge of being driven mad by it. The cast's furious efforts to entertain--everything they do vacillates between hilarious and aggravating--seem a desperate reaction to the nihilism that paralyzes Leonce. They step outside their characters to explain in endless detail a perfectly obvious bit of wordplay, adding hokey commentary and anachronistic asides. Some may say Graney is corrupting Buchner's text, but the cast pounces on this additional material so zealously it helps vitalize the play's theme: faced with hackneyed, pointless roles, people will clutch at anything to keep themselves engaged.
Graney's most inspired choice is to leave Leonce out of the desperate quest to entertain. As portrayed with tireless nonchalance by Ryan Bollettino, our hero can barely muster the enthusiasm to get through his own story. For all the other actors' exquisite exuberance--and much of the clowning here is blisteringly funny--at the center of this production is a cipher ready to give up on the whole stupid endeavor and run out of the theater, just as Buchner seems ready to give up on humanity. Barred from caring about the hero's journey, we're reminded at every moment of this two-hour show that the stage is full of nothing but wasted effort.
Graney's spare, emotionally true Requiem in a Light-Aqua Room is the dramatic opposite of Leonce und Lena. Yet it too is centrally concerned with wasted effort, namely the efforts made by a father and his three daughters to remain connected despite the minefield of disappointment and spite between them.
As in his two previous plays, The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide and En Mortem, Graney writes in a slightly eerie blank verse. His characters speak as though they've had mild strokes: the right word is almost always just beyond reach--except when they're intent on hurting one another. This style gives Graney's potentially hackneyed domestic drama a destabilizing strangeness. Like the overly domesticated living room in David Mamet's The Cryptogram--where characters also speak in elliptical fragments--everything here is familiar but somehow wrong. So when Father sits alone clutching his head, listening to the disturbing noises made by a hooded man in his bedroom, Old Nick, it's not clear if he's in the midst of a psychotic break or actually hearing something.
After nearly 50 years of Pinter, it would seem that theater artists could grasp the sort of sublimation and indirection Graney's work requires. But director Scott Letscher and his cast ramp up emotions precisely when they should be repressed. The result, at least in the first act, comes close to melodrama, exacerbated by the play's artificial structure, reminiscent of Greek tragedy: there's a scene with each of the three daughters, then with a boy selling cookies, and then all the daughters at once. Nor do the Terrapin actors relate to one another like family members, even those estranged by years of neglect and cruelty.
But despite a cast at odds with the text, the sheer power of the writing makes this a mesmerizing evening. Like Brett Neveu in Eric LaRue, Graney creates family dynamics of subtle and disturbing viciousness--washed away in moments of passionate regret only to resurface whenever a character feels the need to protect his or her turf. This is theater every bit as poetic as it is traumatic, horrifying in its emotional accuracy.
In his earlier plays, Graney's characters were children and adolescents. Fittingly, this work is populated by adults. When Requiem in a Light-Aqua Room gets the production it deserves, Graney should be acknowledged as the sophisticated craftsman he's become.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Margaret Laikin, Johnny Knight.