famous Door Theatre Company
Political drama is a decidedly dicey affair. It's the rare piece of political theater that isn't ham-handed, indulgently pessimistic (or optimistic), self-important, and at the same time nearly irrelevant--especially in a culture like ours, which relegates both art and politics to the realm of spectator sport. Political theater also tends to sacrifice complexity for platitudes, resulting in plays fundamentally lacking in emotional and psychological sophistication.
Unfortunately British playwright Howard Brenton's 1988 Greenland exemplifies political theater. In the first act he presents a caricaturelike cross section of British society on the day of a parliamentary general election: the disillusioned Labour Party candidate Joan (Consuelo Allen) and her long-suffering assistant Bill (Scott Kennedy), the fundamentalist zealot and "moral campaigner" Betty Blaze (Lee Roy Rodgers) and her lesbian feminist activist daughter Judy (Holly Cardone), and the morally bankrupt aristocrat Paul (Benjamin Werling) and his utterly despondent wife Milly (Kirsten Sahs). Through it all wanders Brian (Rick Peeples), a drunken unemployment statistic who enigmatically boasts over and over about his "secret life."
The characters simply embody opposing forces: conservative versus liberal, reactionary versus radical, rich versus poor. Brenton presents them in a series of satirical vignettes, giving Greenland a darkly farcical tone during the first half of the opening act. But then he puts these rather sketchy characters through moments of enormous emotional crisis. Judy and Betty, for example, despite their professed hatred of each other's worldviews, collapse sobbing into each other's arms as the painful intensity of their mother-daughter relationship overwhelms them. Paul fears nothing less than complete financial ruin if the Socialists win the election, and his turmoil leads him to beat his wife nearly senseless. Milly responds with a wish for utter oblivion: "I don't want anything . . . I just don't want to be who I am." She remains slumped in a pile onstage for nearly half the first act. Brian--who's little more than a stock character--ends up on the brink of suicide.
As you might imagine, the result of driving such one-dimensional characters to emotional extremes is melodrama. And since Brenton seems to want these characters to reflect life under Margaret Thatcher's archconservatism, his political analysis ends up as broad and oversimplified as the emotional palette he uses.
The play becomes even more strained in the second act, as Joan, Brian, Betty, and Paul are magically transported 700 years into the future, into a socialist utopia. Here all human conflict has been resolved and everyone lives in harmony with everyone else. Workers are no longer alienated from their labor--people simply work at whatever they want to--and love has been freed of institutionalization: monogamy and marriage are laughed at as perversions. History has been reduced to what happened this morning.
This reversal of contemporary norms points up truths that were already perfectly obvious in the first act: that the fundamentalist harbors a secret attraction to the very perversions she denounces, that the Socialist secretly longs for authoritarianism, that men turn their own self-loathing into hatred of women. These revelations might be good places to start a play, acknowledging the inherent duality of human nature. But it's disappointing to spend two and a half hours and 700 years to arrive at these points.
Brenton also makes little effort to dramatize his characters' conflicts. The play is frustratingly static: the characters explain away their most challenging moments rather than actively experiencing them. In the second act Joan tells us about the lack of centralized control in the production sphere in utopia and says, "I would just die for . . . some authority! A little touch of leadership, a bit of bracing tyranny!" Joan's declaration is intended to be comical, but without letting us see the experiences that brought her to this point, her confession is purely academic.
Famous Door's eight cast members struggle admirably to give Greenland a human scope. The performances are generally quite solid, with some strong comic work from Kennedy, Werling, and Robert Caisley as Severan-Severan, the last reactionary in utopia. But too often director Calvin MacLean has his actors collapsing to the floor in anguish, exaggerating the play's already overwrought emotions when a bit of restraint would have greatly increased the drama and tension.
The cast is also hamstrung by Robert G. Smith's clever but ill-proportioned set, which forces the actors either high atop some platforms far upstage or onto the floor, where they're dwarfed by the construction behind them.