Out at Sea/The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Out at Sea/The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds


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European Repertory Company

at Cafe Voltaire


Odessa Group

at Cafe Voltaire

Recent events in Russia make you wonder whether it was premature to pronounce communism dead in 1989; Yeltsin's proliferating enemies show that an old guard remains aggressively nostalgic for those May Day military marathons. But then the iron curtain--representing centuries of paranoia, xenophobia, and class hate--is an inner condition that's not easy to eradicate.

Which means that dissident, once-banned playwrights like Czech Vaclav Havel and Pole Slawomir Mrozek aren't yet dated. Darkly sarcastic, Mrozek is best known for his domestic allegory Tango; his protest plays, performed covertly and illegally, lash out only obliquely at the enemy, reducing Poland's communist inequities to pungent case histories--which, paradoxically, establishes them all the more firmly.

In his 1964 Out at Sea a trio of storm-wrecked castaways adrift on a raft are slowly starving. Incongruously attired in formal wear, they're called Fat, Medium, and Thin, names suggesting their stripped-down identities and possibly their class origins. They share certain pressing needs, however, unfurling a banner that proclaims "We Want Food!" (no doubt a familiar cry in the midst of Poland's bread shortages).

For two of them to survive, one man must sacrifice himself. To decide which one it will be they pursue several gambits. They draw lots. They conduct a mock general election, complete with speeches from the hustings, but give up on democracy and dictatorship. Then each is left to fend for himself and resorts to flattery and appeals to pity, justice, or both. Medium argues that he's an invaluable cook so he mustn't be eaten. Fat says he's indigestible. Thin protests that he has a family and a future. Fat and Medium pretend they're orphans who've suffered enough. In desperation, Thin claims to be poisonous and thus inedible. Meanwhile a postman who drifts by barely escapes being eaten since he's a disposable civil service employee. Somehow Fat's butler drops by too, to identify Fat as an aristocrat; furious at the exposure, Fat orders the man to drown himself.

Finally a victim is found. One castaway is duped into believing that the greater good demands his sacrifice, and that dying for the state proves his freedom: "You will go down in our stomachs as a hero." The play's bitter ending implies that his death was needless--but according to the twisted ethos of state socialism, that only makes the sacrifice more exemplary.

In 45 minutes Mrozek suggests a score of communist contradictions and "big lies." The characters' starvation reflects Mrozek's jaundiced view of Poland's planned economy and organized scarcity (which mock the policy of "To each according to his need, from each according to his capacity"). As Fat, Medium, and Thin plead to live, they reinvent a pernicious social doctrine: that some men are more equal than others. But Fat, Medium, and Thin don't live for the state; they just want to live, period.

A U.S. premiere by the enterprising European Repertory Company, Yasen Peyankov's staging is as resourceful as the script, and in Cafe Voltaire's dank cellar this underground play feels appropriately clandestine. With vaudevillian aplomb Mark Guest, Charley Knapp, and Simon Perry play Fat, Medium, and Thin; their drawing-room dottiness makes this Polish protest play seem absurdly English. Go see it, and think about it when you hear pols talk of "sacrifice."

No such allegory drives The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, now being performed by the Odessa Group at Cafe Voltaire. Grimly, the characters stand for nothing but themselves. Paul Zindel's bitter script hasn't softened with the years: this family expose focuses on Beatrice Hunsdorfer, a miserable divorcee who perpetuates a cycle of abuse with her disturbed but still salvageable daughters.

Prone to convulsions, nightmares, and a free-floating fear of death, daughter Ruth is twisted with adolescent confusion and a passion never to become an embarrassment like her mother. Though Tillie doesn't talk in class, she's a promising student; her science-fair project--on how radiation stunts the growth of flowers--hints at her own mutating life. Both girls love their rabbit Peter--whom Beatrice, of course, hates as just one more burden she has to carry. Drinking heavily, chain-smoking, riddled with self-pity ("Everything I have has exploded"), and vaguely amused by her own casual cruelty, the slatternly Beatrice relishes the chance to revile Nanny, the Alzheimer's victim whose $150-a-week board provides her sole income.

It would be easy to dismiss Beatrice as a cesspool of misery, as clinically dysfunctional. But Zindel is brilliant enough to take us, briefly, inside her dreams. When Beatrice does show a brief interest in Tillie's achievement, the impulse to encourage her daughter backfires, triggering bad memories and a disastrous decline--more hard luck in a hard life. It's left to Tillie to offer the play's one hint of optimism: rejoicing in the knowledge that her every cell was created from a star (shades of Our Town), she sees the miracle of the atom as her own personal hope.

The pain of this play comes from how clearly we're made to see both mother and daughters; paralyzed by seeing so much, we're aware of our own passivity, watching them try to break the family curse.

Director Fred Anzevino may take his time telling the tale, but he misses none of the hard-boiled pathos or hard-won compassion. Kelley Hazen gives Beatrice enough dead-end despair to make us dread her and enough dignity to make us care. T. Emily Nelson as restless Ruth and Michele E. Gilmore as idealistic Tillie seem both freakish and familiar. It's scary to watch them resist becoming like their mother and to know that at least one probably will anyway.

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