Talking Past Each Other | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Talking Past Each Other



The Man Stripped Bare by His Boy

Curious Theatre Branch

at the Lunar Cabaret

If form follows function, it makes perfect sense to build a play about fragmentation out of fragments. Could there be a more apt way to communicate isolation than a series of soliloquies in which the people onstage rarely acknowledge one another's existence? Playwright Shawn Reddy and his Curious Theatre Branch colleagues obviously had these considerations in mind while developing The Man Stripped Bare by His Boy: even the program illustration shows disconnected arms and legs floating next to a limbless torso.

Unfortunately, the intellectual satisfaction of creating a piece whose form expresses its meaning so well isn't sufficient to compensate for that form's weaknesses. Serial soliloquies inevitably raise the question, Why don't these people talk to one another? Even when that's the dramatic point, it's a question that distances the audience from the work. Only rarely does a monologue provide the emotional punch, the engagement with character, that is dialogue's stock-in-trade. (Maybe that's because we doubt the veracity of speech makers: what are they trying to put over by presenting themselves in this controlled way? By contrast conversation seems casual, a context in which truth might slip out.) Without our engagement, the character's thoughts seem the incidental musings of a stranger: possibly interesting but easy to dismiss.

The Man Stripped Bare by His Boy portrays a family in which the father does nothing but sit alone in an outbuilding, washing his hands and telling himself stories about his own father; the son, George, disappoints Daddy with his ineptitude at hunting and does nothing but sit alone at a workbench, trying fruitlessly to assemble toys from kits; the daughter, Rosie--who seems to have all the skills her brother lacks--wanders in and out displaying her accomplishments and getting the back of Daddy's hand for her pains; and the mother occupies herself with laundry while claiming to "keep it all together" by occasionally taking Daddy's temperature or providing vague, inaccurate answers to George's questions about the past. Failure to hear or see is the central metaphor--Rosie even says to her father, "No one's listening to you, no one can hear you," while George hangs endless copies of the same blurry picture--but there are many others, making for a very crowded evening. With Daddy the duck hunter embodying a sitting duck, Rosie describing taxidermy as an art form in which animals only look right if they've been completely disemboweled, and a voice-over pointing out various small containers into which a man has been stuffed by distorting himself beyond recognition, what comes to mind is the old New Yorker plea: "Block that metaphor!"

Though there's lots of lovely lyrical writing, in the absence of connection to the characters the listener's mind starts to wander. Reddy wants to show how they use words to conceal themselves from one another, but sadly the effect is to conceal them from us. If that, too, was the playwright's goal--if these are supposed to be theater of the absurd stereotypes--he hasn't flattened them sufficiently. We're left with a play too specific to be archetypal and too generic to be affecting.

Under the direction of Reddy, Robin Cline, Bryn Magnus, and the cast, this is an impeccably fluid production. The metaphors float instead of clunk because they're not weighed down by stage business: the actors address the audience with a minimum of fuss, and the stunning final image is set up with great subtlety over the course of the show's uninterrupted 70 minutes. Guy Massey is free of vanity as Daddy, playing with equal facility the old man's childishness and his unredeemed adult nastiness. (Something about the performance evokes Bill Petersen's turn long ago as Jack Henry Abbott in In the Belly of the Beast--maybe just the fact of a handsome young actor ably playing a grizzled jerk.) Julie Caffey's Mama is equally accomplished, giving the production a spine though she's saddled with the least interesting speeches. Colm O'Reilly is suitably pathetic as George, and Lara Hightower suitably defiant as Rosie. It's not clear, though, why she affects a southern accent; an explicit reference to caverns "down in Virginia" establishes that the piece isn't set in the deep south. The problem is bigger than this production: the theater industry has yet to figure out a way to indicate low social status among white people that doesn't involve sounding like Li'l Abner.

The title (an homage to Marcel Duchamp's equally fragmentary The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) reflects both the penetrating quality of innocence and the endlessly reiterated conflict between fathers and sons. And Reddy delivers a number of interesting meditations on the family. What he's omitted is their emotional content. Like Rosie's stuffed bird or the frozen baby bird that melts away to nothing in Daddy's hand, the piece has the right shape but lacks a sustaining structure.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kristin Basta.

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