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Trapped in the Pits

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Saved

Azusa Productions

at Profiles Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Edward Bond's brutal, blankly honest slice-of-life drama ignited a firestorm of controversy when it opened in 1965. Conservative critics howled--the man at the middle-of-the-road Tribune-like Daily Telegraph reported feeling "cold disgust" for a work that features the senseless murder of a baby--while more progressive critics like Martin Esslin cheered a play that challenged the audience, provoking them to "emerge from the theatre with a deeper insight, a greater compassion for the sufferings of some of their fellow human beings."

The British authorities were less divided, acting quickly to ban the play, impose a hefty fine on all concerned, and shut down the Royal Court production--even though technically they had no right to interfere with a "members only" club performance. These acts in turn incited protest, which culminated in 1968 with the long-overdue closing of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship office.

Thirty-two years later the play has lost none of its power to disgust and inspire. At least one critic fled this Azusa Productions performance halfway through opening night, and who could blame him? Two and a half hours long, this intentionally flat, dreary work portrays in agonizing detail the drifting lives of a handful of lackluster proles pissing away their days in south London. Building on the precedent set by fellow Royal Court playwright John Osborne, who triggered his own firestorm in the late 50s with the kitchen-sink realism of Look Back in Anger, Bond fills Saved with scenes that are so utterly lacking in the theatrical devices used to increase dramatic tension that much of the play could pass for a transcription from life.

Even the much-publicized baby murder, the climax of the first act, unfolds with the tedious inevitability of everyday life. A neglectful mother leaves a child unattended. A bored street gang sees the baby, tries to make it laugh by tickling it, becomes enraged when the baby (who was drugged by the mother) doesn't respond, then tries more and more extreme measures to get the child to react. Finally, exasperated, they stone it to death. It's the kind of onstage murder that manages to offend the weak-livered even as it fails to satisfy the blood lust of closet sadists.

This scene, and the one before it in which a baby wails continually in the background, reminds me of nothing so much as the monotony of watching the Rolling Stones do take after take after take of "Sympathy for the Devil" in Jean-Luc Godard's One Plus One. Like fellow Marxist Godard, Bond loves nothing so much as refusing to give middle-class audiences the one thing they crave most: escape. Instead he serves them the world straight up. In this sense Bond is a bridge of sorts between Osborne, whose realism looks a lot more contrived in retrospect than it seemed at first, and Mike Leigh, whose experiments with stories that follow the organic ebb and flow of daily life have resulted in plays like the recently produced, well-received Ecstasy and the sometimes infuriating, sometimes funny film Life Is Good.

Sadly the folks at Azusa--best known to me for two great productions of Sam Shepard's sci-fi fantasy The Unseen Hand--are not really up to the job of bringing Bond's play to life. Granted, the play is intensely difficult to do well, as Bond himself admitted when he wrote that "new writing needs new acting, new directing and new audiences." But you're unlikely to glean from this dry, dull version of Saved that on the page Bond's hyperrealistic dialogue is fascinating, and that those willing to listen and think will hear a moving story about a man finding his moral compass in an amoral world--though admittedly that story unfolds indirectly.

Directed by Patrick Wilkes and Maggie Speer, Azusa's production fails to find the right pace or tone to set the play on fire. A few scenes work quite well, in particular a thwarted seduction in the second act between a frowsy, dumpy middle-aged woman (played by Speer) and her daughter's jilted lover, Len (played with uncommon grace and power by Reid Coker). And a couple of actors give the sort of balls-out performances that might have raised the play out of the muck. Georgina Stoyles in particular is excellent as an abusive bitch of an unwed mother, the kind of person who's more saddened by the jailing of her lover for killing her baby than by the murder itself. But most of the time this flat, superficial production does little but sleepwalk through the scenes, reproducing with admirable accuracy Bond's lower-class British accents.

Wilkes and Speer attempt to universalize the play's themes by beginning each scene with a slide show intended to remind us that we, too, have down-and-out neighborhoods in Chicago filled with people as poor and dispirited as those in Saved. But the photos in the slide show suffer from the same voyeuristic lack of empathy that dooms the production. Bond, himself a member of the proletariat, wrote Saved about a group with which he was very familiar. And much of what makes the play radical is the result of his willingness to cut through all the Dickensian sentimentality about the poor to give us an unflinching view of the world as it is.

But the folks at Azusa have delivered a production about "them," the dirty, shiftless unemployed and their kin who live in dirty, decrepit houses in dirty, dangerous corners of the city. And that change in point of view makes all the difference in the world. Midway through this Saved I wanted to walk out too--not because I was offended by Bond's play but because the production so thoroughly eliminates any possibility of seeing the characters as our fellow human beings.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): stage shot.

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