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Local theater troupes explore political, emotional dynamics
(Published April 5, 1999)
By LARRY RODMAN
We’re all cynical (and, to a degree, complicit) spectators of the political scene. It’s become second nature to view public servants in light of their most acute embarrassments. Scandal is symptomatic of corruption within the American political machine, which at least — in contrast to the fictional Old World portrayed in Swiss master playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s bizarre, stylized satire The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi — still operates within a reasonable measure of stability.
In the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s American premier of the German-language absurdist classic, the political system is fundamentally meaningless, with no public or private act untainted by treachery. In a nameless European politburo, undergoing violent social flux at the height of the Cold War, heads roll to save face and preserve the party line. The messianic Public Prosecutor (Timmy Ray James) is self-righteously deranged with the notion of returning the justice system to the "Law of Moses," that of the vengeful God of the Old Testament.
While the prosecutor, Florestan Mississippi, is outwardly beyond reproach, there’s a skeleton in his closet; he’s poisoned his wife in a fit of jealousy. Mississippi — perversely reasoning that two wrongs make a right — forces a marriage pact upon the merry widow, Anastasia (Kerry Waters), whom he knows has coincidentally committed the same breach of her own wedding vows. Their union acts to conceal their respective crimes and enforce one another’s penance.
Gradually, in order to subsist in her bewildering environment, the Bergmanesque, opportunistic Anastasia must seduce, or be coerced, by a succession of rivals; Mississippi himself, the dashing radical Marxist adversary Saint-Claude (Kryztov Lindquist), the Minister of Justice, and — perhaps her true love — the beleaguered missionary Count Bodo.
Bodo (Bruce Nelson) is a delusional romantic, who — perhaps because he’s been reduced to a miserable husk — is ultimately the only person motivated to transcend hypocrisy and sacrifice himself for others. He teeters on the edge of a psychic abyss, however, so it’s hard to predict whether his presence will demand the audiences’ empathy or revulsion at any given moment.
If Noel Coward had written a hyper-politically charged drawing-room comedy, featuring assassins and directorial references to Casablanca, it might resemble the ideological farce of Mr. Mississippi. Actually, this play inspires few convenient comparisons. Its occasionally jarring, anti-traditional interludes and devices — the deconstruction of narrative continuity and the removal of illusionistic barriers between performer and audience, for example — have been integrated into mainstream pop-culture since the ‘50s, so the play has effectively become accessible to a wider audience with age. What will be of particular relish to Washington audiences is its spectacle of abuse of power and partisan one-upmanship, as ridiculed to a frightening extreme by Friedrich Durrenmatt.
The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi, through April 17, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 1401 Church St. NW; box office, (703) 218-6500.
Those who enjoy daring, substantive plays should be aware of a new company, Charter Theatre, which opens its inaugural season at Arena Stage’s Old Vat Theatre with an April production of playwright Chris Stezin’s drama Hoboken Station — itself a world premier. Charter Theatre is Washington’s only professional company dedicated exclusively to the development and production of new plays by authors with distinctive, original voices.
The engagement in the Old Vat Theatre will be Charter’s coming-out party after a series of readings and performances. They, in effect, take up the torch once held by the New Playwright’s Theatre, who are fondly remembered by longtime Washington theater-goers for original musicals and plays in the ‘70s and ‘80s. What with all the variety in the city’s cultural landscape, there hasn’t been such an extensive outlet for D.C. area writers for a long time.
Hoboken Station is an engrossing noirish exploration of the hunger for connection in the most alienating of urban environments, in this case New York City. A New Jersey police detective, Ingrim, investigates Valerie, an emotionally fragile young woman who alleges childhood sexual abuse. He engages in a tug-of-war with her therapist as each attempts to determine which of Valerie’s memories are real or imagined. Hoboken Station explores the different ways people cope, or fail to cope, with serious loss, as Ingrim struggles with his own demons while trying to save Valerie, and ultimately, himself.
While Charter Theatre’s artistic philosophy nurtures writers, it’s the connection between the play and audience which Artistic Director Keith Bridges sees as their primary reason for being. "It happens right there in the moment. My goal is to have the audience…experience a heightened emotional awareness," he said.
Hoboken Station, through April 25; Charter Theatre at Arena Stage’s Old Vat Theatre, 6th Street and Maine Avenue SW; reservations and advance ticket sales, (301) 699-1925.
Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator