Triage | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Eclat Productions

at the International Conference Center

Larry Kramer's play about AIDS, The Normal Heart, should have been a dismal failure. The plot concerns a young man dying of the disease, and it's horribly depressing. The main character is a shrill, obnoxious pain in the neck, and the dialogue is so heavily larded with facts and figures about AIDS that the characters often sound like the New York Times.

Yet The Normal Heart is one of the most effective plays I've ever seen, and I've often wondered how Kramer pulled it off.

Triage, by Richard Cavalier, throws some light on the mystery. There are several similarities between the two plays. Both are about tragedies currently affecting the human race--Kramer wants to alert people to the threat of AIDS, while Cavalier focuses on world hunger, arguing that it's caused by indifference and greed not by a shortage of food.

Both plays are packed with information about their respective topics, and both revolve around a quixotic attempt to deal with crisis.

But there's one crucial difference--The Normal Heart miraculously transforms the AIDS crisis into high drama, while Triage trivializes the tragedy of world hunger. Despite his good intentions, Cavalier creates shallow, cartoonish characters who simply serve as mouthpieces for the author. Consequently the dialogue sounds like an academic debate instead of a clash of passionately held beliefs; and a debate--even about a problem as urgent as world hunger--is seldom dramatic.

Triage, written in 1975, is built on a fanciful premise: The Bonheur Republic--a fictional chain of nine small islands in the South Pacific--has announced it will "cease to exist" in the world unless something major is done to stop world hunger. News reports interpret the communique as a threat to blow up the world, which quickly brings two intrepid reporters to the island republic--Sakai-San, from Tokyo, and Edward Charles, from an American news service. The two reporters discover that the islanders don't have nuclear weapons, but they do possess telekinetic powers that enable them to fuse matter with antimatter, causing the matter to evaporate in a burst of energy. By concentrating in unison, the islanders intend to evaporate the islands--and themselves--within 48 hours, because they cannot bear to live in a world that allows 10,000 people to die each day of starvation. In a communique the people explain, "To fail to protest is to participate, and that secondary culpability is no longer tolerable to us."

The threat to quit the world also brings a visit from Baron Wim van Bilderberg, the administrative director of the Central Organization of Industrialized Nations (COIN), a powerful financial cartel. His arrival in the republic's council chamber, where he confronts the president of the republic and her ministers, sets the stage for the central debate of the play.

The question is should the industrial nations of the world relinquish the profits and power they derive from manipulating the food supply? The heartless baron, who is more interested in profit than people, is outraged by the proposal. First he accuses the Bonheur government of espousing communism. Then he invokes the primacy of the free market. "Scarcity drives up prices," he says. "As petroleum prices rise, fertilizer prices will rise even more. Are the poor to be immune to economic law?"

Finally, the baron makes a suggestion borrowed directly from Scrooge himself, who sought to reduce the "excess population" by letting the poor starve to death: "If the starving die, there will be fewer mouths and therefore relatively more food for the survivors," the baron says. "If 10,000 people die each week, ultimately the problem will resolve itself."

This is where Cavalier lets the moral superiority of his position slip away. Sure, world hunger is terrible, and anyone who tries to defend it is going to sound like a monster. But the reasons for the food shortage are complex, and reducing them to simple greed is trite. Depicting a crude villain like the baron as the cause of hunger is like depicting all Nazis as homicidal psychopaths--sure it's comforting to blame grotesquely evil humans, but the real horror is that atrocities are caused by people very much like ourselves. The baron is simply too easy to hate.

And Vincent Raye compounds the problem with his lively portrayal of the baron. Most of the cast members in this production don't even seem to be actors--they merely recite their lines in an emotionless monotone. When Raye appears and really acts, he makes the baron's nastiness especially conspicuous, which makes the character even more implausible.

So Triage falls to illuminate the causes of world hunger, and it fails to prescribe a viable course of action for ending it. But it's not totally useless--when you consider it next to something like The Normal Heart, it serves to expose the qualities of good drama in the same way that mediocre poetry exposes the genius of Shakespeare.

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