Bash: Latterday Plays by Neil Labute
10 Square @ Orchard Central/Saturday
The confessional can be a dangerous form for actors, particularly showy audition-type monologues where less experienced performers might be tempted to indulge in easy tears or dramatic mood swings in the hopes of demonstrating their range.
What often happens is a caricaturing that rings false. Instead of conveying a whole, real and grounded person, they compress the extremes of human emotion into a single act, and the audience is always aware that the actor is present, and acting.
Thankfully, not too much of this happens in Phenix Art's take on Neil Labute's triple-bill of short plays. The young theatre company's founder, Krissy Jesudason, is very compelling on stage; her counterpart, Zachary Ibrahim, less so. But together with director Isabella Chiam they manage a mostly confident staging of a difficult playwright.
Labute has drawn a reputation for turning over that dark, soft underbelly of humanity and slashing it open, guts and all. In Bash, subtitled Latterday Plays for his (former) relationship with the Mormon church, he has put together a modern day retelling of Ancient Greek tragedies, where revenge is taken and lives are sacrificed, often brutally.
Like the Greek tragedians, Labute asks: Is human nature inherently evil, or are their actions a matter of "fate" and circumstance? In each instance, the audience assumes the role of confidante, and the characters protest their innocence and their good intentions. Depending on the actor, sometimes you believe them and sometimes you don't.
In the first act (Iphigenia in Orem), a rumpled businessman confesses his buried part in a horrible family tragedy involving his baby daughter. In the second (A Gaggle of Saints), a young college-age couple separately recount the events of a romantic evening and party turned on its head by a violent hate crime; and in the conclusion (Medea Redux), a young woman takes revenge on a teacher who sexually abused her when she was 13, with terrible consequences.
Because the sketches are so short, a great deal is required to move these characters from flat types to fully-fleshed, flawed human beings - and also managing the unfolding narrative so that the unsuspecting audience is reeled in for the cruel twist of the knife.
Incidentally, Ibrahim made his professional stage debut in a Labute play (last year's Fat Pig, presented by Pangdemonium), where he played a loutish, chauvinistic alpha male to a T. This time round, the cutting arrogance works, but not so much the undercurrent of fragility; he relies heavily on affectations and a go-to selection of physical and verbal tics in his attempt to make his characters both smarmy and self-conscious. The result is that the edges of both his characters - a college jock and travelling family man - blur into each other.
But he shows good chemistry with Jesudason in their lynchpin of a duologue, particularly in a moment where her blissful ignorance rubs up against his confession of a hate crime against a gay man that makes your stomach turn. It is a deconstruction of the very worst impulses of masculinity and machismo.
She is the one to watch here, moving from shallow cheerleader to bitter young woman with ease. The text of Medea Redux doesn't always support her, moving from the comfortable, narrow vocabulary of lower-middle-class Americana to philosophical, whimsical clunkers about the state of existence that might have been better left unsaid. But despite the inconsistencies in language, she manages to be at once childlike and old beyond her years.
Bash isn't an evening of blunt-force trauma as its title might suggest. It is the slow bleed-out, drawn out commendably by its young team of practitioners on the edge of the knife. I could hear audience members around me letting out a long breath as the lights went down, which means that they had been holding it, tense with anticipation, all along. Not a bad accomplishment for an intimate evening.
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