S2 | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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S2

Organic Theater Company

Greenhouse Lab Theater

A spy and a prostitute parachute out of a plane and land safely in Ecuador. Three astronauts float through space as they battle one another for the possession of a powerful drug. An impeccably dressed headless dummy comes to life, gesticulating urbanely while explaining the nuances of his Evil Plan.

These are three imaginative, visually stunning moments in Edward Mast's new play, S2, an otherwise plodding and heavy-handed diatribe against the evils of drugs, the media, complacency, the U.S. government, and authority figures in general. Unfortunately these three worthwhile moments can easily be missed since they occur long after the urge to take a nap sets in.

Slate (Scott Denny), a 14-year-old prostitute, stumbles into the possession of a suitcase full of white powder: a bliss-inducing drug called S2. When he's attacked by secret agents in ninja dress, his lover is killed, and the suitcase is stolen, Slate sets out on an errand of revenge, pursuing the assassins to Ecuador. There he meets and falls in love with a female revolutionary (though initially he's presented as gay, Slate claims to have no real preference for men--he stays away from women because he can't stand the thought of bringing a child into this lousy, stinking world). Captured by U.S. agents, he's tortured and brainwashed and becomes an agent himself, mild-mannered and heterosexual. Gradually (much, much too gradually), he gets involved in a government plot to still the discontent of the masses with S2, which is "only addictive insofar as contentment is addictive."

This Organic Greenhouse production, never sure whether it's high camp (the actors wield wooden guns and shout "Bang!" at each other) or the kind of gritty comic-book story in which assassins are commonplace, ends up failing at both genres. Directed by Sarah Tucker, it's too self-consciously performed to succeed as camp; and although it has much of the self-congratulatory tone to be found in graphic novels that wrestle with moral issues while appealing to prurient tastes, it has none of the cinematic, quick-fix satisfaction of The Dark Knight or Elektra. And the plot of S2, though it's packed with action, moves with the speed of a geriatric turtle.

Part of the problem with S2 stems from the language Mast forces on his characters. It seems odd when his 14-year-old protagonist, "educated by mail-order study and the backs of graphic novels," speaks in perfect textbook English, with no contractions and no slang. Eventually it becomes clear that the characters' odd speech serves no other purpose than to establish a highly stylized tone. And by robbing his characters of any idiomatic expressions, Mast also robs them of passion. "I love the way in which you have intercourse with me," drones Slate's lover. "Swallow excrement!" Slate snarls at his torturer. "Go have intercourse with yourself!" Perhaps it's meant to be funny, but it gets tiresome mighty fast. "Fuck" is one lovely, quick syllable that packs an emotional punch. "Intercourse" has no emotional resonance whatsoever, no matter how often or loudly an actor screams it. And it simply takes too long to say.

The cast is fresh, smooth-cheeked, squeaky clean, and bright-eyed--surely the sweetest collection of junkies, prostitutes, guerrilla fighters, and assassins ever assembled. By way of compensation, apparently, they have been directed to glare severely at the audience during scene changes. Denny has the beautifully chiseled features of a comic-book hero and, one suspects, a lot of charisma beneath the actorly facade he's adopted for this role. When he doesn't sound as though he's auditioning for Hamlet, Slate is charming. Alison Halstead, in multiple roles, is genuinely thoughtful and entertaining. The real standouts, however, are Peter Rybolt's excellent fight choreography and the inspired, imaginative design by the Greenhouse team.

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