John Guare’s plays were po-mo before po-mo was the American theater’s default setting. They mix genres seemingly at random. They revel in pop culture references. They erase the line between reality and what Baudrillard would call “simulacrum”–the phony “hyperreality” promoted every day in the media. Their approach to their material is that mode so beloved of deconstructionists everywhere: pastiche.
Consequently, the difficulty in staging the pastiche is that the play often threatens to turn into pure chaos. Actors and directors must make firm decisions about the mode to which any given scene belongs–or if there is more than one–and still maintain a stylistic unity.
For the most part, the University of Washington production of John Guare’s Landscape of the Body gets it right. The first half of the performance is excellent. The opening scene between Betty and Capt. Marvin Holahan is not completely successful and it takes the actors a bit to settle in, but I chalk this up to a bit of opening night nerves. Once they do settle, however, the first act moves briskly along and lets the actors shine.
Amanda Hilson as Betty is much, much stronger here than I have seen her. For a young actress, she latches fairly easily onto most of the matronly qualities of her character and has a very lovely vocal quality that never obtrudes. Pankaj Jha does a convincing turn as Capt. Holahan and Christian Telesmar performs the slowburn role that is Bert smoothly enough to convince. Yesenia Iglesias as Rosalie seems to understand her role well enough and she commits to it. She is certainly beautiful and her singing is, while not exactly Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, pretty and accurate. The supporting cast is equally fine, especially Kimberly Nicole Wood as the National Enquirer-obsessed Joanne and Darius Mousavi, whose Raulito is pure brilliance.
After intermission, various problems of the play come to the fore. The cast flail a bit, and are not helped by Mr. Guare’s script, which is simply too top-heavy at this point, but I think there is also an interpretive problem director L. Zane does not solve. Given that the play is pastiche, one must be dead certain what the sources are for the pastiche. I am not convinced Ms. Zane is quite correct at times.
For instance, even in the opening scene the pastiche has begun. It is a scene on a boat. It is most certainly a reference to the numerous boat movies of the 50s and 60s, An Affair to Remember and Ship of Fools obvious among them, but also movies as seemingly obscure as Murder Ahoy (supported by the fact that the character here is actually a detective). But it is not simply one type of movie being referenced here: Capt. Holahan also appears in disguise, and the disguise is a set of “funny nose glasses.” It is impossible not instantly to think the playwright is invoking Groucho Marx, who died the very same year the play is set: 1977. And yet Pankaj Jha seems to perform completely unaware of the connotation. Similarly, Rosalie tells her story while dead, performing from a faux heaven that looks exactly like the set of a Hollywood musical–even Rita Hayworth’s name is invoked by one of the characters–without ever making the full nod to the genre.
Mr. Guare does not evoke these media images because they are unimportant. On the contrary, they are the whole meaning of his play. His characters are largely lost and clueless because the city of New York, and by extension America itself, merges the hyperreality of Hollywood films and television sitcoms and tabloid press into the American psyche so thoroughly that no one can distinguish truth or reality any longer. In such a world, self-discovery is impossible because there is no self unaffected by the media onslaught (witness Raulito’s logic of why he wears a Rita Hayworth dress). The contrast between the naive, rustic town of Bangor, Maine and the dirty glamour of New York City is deliberate: old America à la Rockwell has been devoured by the new America of porn, robbery, murder and random death. The tone of the play shifts erratically between Broadway melodrama and TV sitcom, Hollywood musical and cop show. But the shifts in tone are the meaning of the piece.
The second act of Landscape of the Body is where all these things come to head, and the second act is where the performance loses the plot a little. The laughs from the bizarre events of the first act disappear suddenly in the second and the comic tone important to the play falters at times. The cast recover from this admirably, but a director has to identify this and give them a bit more help. If the play is pastiche, revel in the pastiche. I should like to see the pastiche become even more obvious and hyperreal than it is, but I think Ms. Zane chooses to underplay what, in my mind, should be overplayed and forces it toward realism. This is fatal to the final scene on the boat. The scene is pure Douglas Sirk melodrama and consciously so. To play it as though it is any way believable is to court unintentional laughter.
The flaws of the second act, however, do not sink the production–far from it. This is a very fine group of actors. They are uniformly talented and impressive. The piece they have before them is extremely difficult, probably seductively so. It has always been met with a combination of confusion and resistance. Landscape of the Body is quite different from Six Degrees of Separation. It is rough, brittle and filled with ideas–some would say too many. That the University of Washington students can make a very watchable affair of it at all is outstanding. That they do it so well, with minor reservations, is brilliant.