The "L" WORD
In his pair of one-act comedies, Antigone Lost and Reginald and Victoria Go Bungee Jumping in the Valley of the Bedouins (which the Transient Theatre collects under the title "The 'L' Word"), playwright Doug Reed explores, albeit a bit clumsily, a very rich comic subject: What happens when writers confuse their words with the world, and try to work out their personal problems in the imaginative worlds they create?
Writers have been ringing changes on this question ever since Cervantes, although the most immediate ancestors to these one-acts are the self-reflexive novels of the mid-70s. In Richard Brautigan's Sombrero Fallout, for instance, a whiny, self-obsessed writer, still raw from a recent breakup, tries (and tries and tries) to write a novel called "Sombrero Fallout" that will symbolically explore his failed relationship.
Both of Doug Reed's plays use a similar story-within-a-story structure. In Antigone Lost a professor, attempting to win back his estranged wife, unveils what he claims is a long-lost play by Sophocles, "Antigone Lost," in which Sophocles appears as a character and attempts to win back his estranged wife by continuing the story of Antigone. Sophocles quickly becomes sidetracked, however, and tells instead about Creon's attempts to win back his estranged (and very dead) wife, Eurydice. Watching this play unfold into a play within a play within a play, it's hard to decide whether to applaud the author for his persistence in creating so many frames or hiss him for being so obvious about it.
To be fair, director Steve Tanner must share some of the blame for the obviousness. His staging emphasizes the weakest elements of Antigone Lost--Reed's cartoonish characters, his dependence on cheap gags, his undergraduate notions of subtle literary humor (Antigone dies at the end of Antigone, so how could there be a sequel? Get it?) Meanwhile Tanner completely fails to explore the play's subtext of rejection and unrequited love.
These flaws are reflected in the performances. Even the strongest actors in the show--Tim Monahan, Andrea Stark, Jessica Levy--succumb to the temptation to be as obvious and ham-fisted as the playwright himself.
Reginald and Victoria Go Bungee Jumping in the Valley of the Bedouins is the better of the two plays. Reed uses a similar story-within-a-story device with considerably more subtlety. In the play we meet Al Noonan, a sloppy, alcoholic author best known--if "known" is the right word--for a popular series of romance novels about Reginald and Victoria he's published under a woman's name. Sick to death of writing novels (Noonan secretly wishes he'd become a sportswriter) he keeps plowing through what he hopes will be his last one while falling in love with both his editor, Holly, and his fictional heroine, Victoria.
As in Antigone Lost, Reed constantly contrasts the fictional world with the real one--scenes from the novel in progress are performed between scenes from the author's squalid life--though Reed avoids the easy one-on-one comparisons that make Antigone Lost much more fun to write about than it was to sit through.
The play's greater success may have something to do with Tanner's more sophisticated direction too. Tanner's staging of Reginald and Victoria is much more textured than his Antigone Lost. Of course it's a much sexier play, both literally--the play is about sexual attraction, as opposed to rejection--and figuratively. Reginald and Victoria constantly find themselves in James Bond-ish cliff- hangers--Victoria hanging by a thread over a waterfall, for instance, while Reginald dukes it out with their archenemy, Dr. Kardokas. These scenes must have been a blast to stage.
The performers, too, seem to be enjoying themselves much more in Reginald and Victoria. Michael Karberg really tears up the stage as the silly, childish, but very charming author. And Andrea Stark, who all but fades away as the professor's soon-to-be ex-wife in Antigone Lost, really seems to relish her role as Holly, Noonan's real-life love interest. Likewise Jessica Levy, whose rendition of Eurydice in Antigone Lost consisted of little more than a walk-on in a (somewhat) revealing costume, really lights up the stage as Victoria, Noonan's fictional love interest.
For all that, I have to admit I left Reginald and Victoria feeling almost as empty and unsatisfied as I did after Antigone Lost. Having suffered through the 80s, when pomo belly- button gazing was all the rage in everything from movies to kids' TV shows to advertisements, I find I just can't get that excited about yet another literary work about literary work, however well written, staged, and performed.