By Jef With One F
By Pete Vonder Haar
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Politics and theater have always made uneasy partners. Put the two together, and the results can run the gamut from dangerous to dim-witted to yawn-inducingly dull. When the politics involve something as overwhelming as the September 11 assault on the World Trade Center, really bad theater seems imminent. When such a tragic event is to be addressed by actors in clown-face, singing, dancing and telling jokes, really bad theater seems like the best you can hope for. But Brian Jucha's latest project with Infernal Bridegroom Productions proves that the director knows how to manipulate the volatile chemistry of politics and theater to create the right kind of explosion.
Through May 19 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. $32-$42.
Jucha is the artistic director of New York's Via Theater. His original "neo-expressionist" (read: avant-garde) productions -- such as Last Rites, the show he created with IBP in 1997 -- layer dance and music over snatches of dialogue to create wildly animated collages of theater that are impossible to categorize. Even the catch-all phrase of "performance art" is wrong; the effete jargon fails to capture the scorching power of Jucha's imagination.
The fist-to-the-gut punch of his work has never been more evident than in We Have Some Planes, the absolutely stunning production now running at the Axiom. While the show is built around September 11, its real focus is American culture. And if Jucha's take on the business of being America is to be believed, 9/11 marks just the beginning of our troubles.
From the moment you walk into the theater, you know this is not going to be easy entertainment. The back walls have been stripped to black brick. Above the stage is a digital clock, counting down the minutes of that Tuesday morning before the planes were lost. Running the entire length of the stage is a long black table, as austere and official as any boardroom. It moves and pivots on wheels with surprising theatricality, and would be almost whimsical were it not so diabolical-looking. The actors march out with precision, dressed in dark suits, carrying briefcases and boxes. Tamarie Cooper steps forward, announcing "Act I." Its title is "Innocence."
As played out here, American innocence comes off as a naive teenage screed against the powers that be. Clarence White's "Never Ending Love" screams over the sound system. A man hands out official-looking documents, snarling "cocksucker," "pervert" and "bitch" as he works. The actors begin to pull out the detritus of American culture from their boxes and briefcases. Kool cigarettes, Aqua Net hair spray, peanut butter and Brillo pads are suddenly strewn across the table, along with reams and reams of white paper that they mechanically stamp.
One of Jucha's strengths as a writer-director is his use of pop culture, especially music. Pop tunes blare all night long, and they've been chosen with the blackest, bleakest sense of irony. Karen Carpenter's "Top of the World," the Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up and Away" and 'N Sync's "Bye Bye Bye" are all woven into dialogue that includes excerpts from the transcripts of the 9/11 air traffic controllers. When these vapid songs are juxtaposed with the words of the controller who kept valiantly radioing for American Flight 11, even as it was flying into the north tower, our culture comes off as inanely blinded by its wealth, its love of stuff and its juvenile insistence on the American dream of happiness.
While We Have Some Planes has no linear narrative, the action and images circle around this controller (Amy Bruce) trying to reach Flight 11. She comes to work literally blind-folded and over the course of one morning discovers that life in America is not a pop song. Act II, called "What Happened Next," and Act III, titled "You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat" (riffing off the movie Jaws), follows her descent into the hell of that morning while "Free Winona" T-shirts, phone sex, boy bands, skateboards and endless piles of paperwork continue to fill up the world around her.
Jucha expresses this desperate sense of irony with tightly choreographed MTV moves, skateboard crashes, lip-synched pop songs and clips of shark attack videos that are spliced into the story as it rushes forward at astonishing speed without break, blackout or intermission. Roma Flowers's lighting design adds a wonder of depth, with lights shining from the oddest corners. The underside of the table becomes fluorescent, and a door swings open to let in a fiery blaze; even the back doors of the theater are opened to reveal the faded light of the street lamps.
But Jucha's incisive direction and Flowers's technical finesse alone could not make this risky piece work. IBP brings vitality, integrity and generosity of heart to the mix. It is especially good to see George Parker, with his limber timing and fierce sense of irony, in the show.
Beyond risky, this production pushes us right up to the edge of some hard truths about the world we love. It takes nerves of titanium to write, produce and perform material like this. Jucha and IBP prove that the payoff for such risk-taking can be enormous. Theatrically gorgeous, intellectually disturbing and painfully provocative, We Have Some Planes should not be missed by anyone who loves theater, politics or America and the dreams this country inspires.
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