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Native soil
Desire Under the Elms; The Buz’Gem Blues; All My Sons

"God’s hard, not easy!" declares Ephraim Cabot, the grizzled Puritan patriarch of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms (at the American Repertory Theatre through June 12). The same observation can be made of the 1924 drama, an Americanized amalgam of three Greek tragedies played out on a hardscrabble New England farm by a trio of the doomed in an arcane dialect that makes them sound like the Beverly Hillbillies. But if someone were up to the task, I reckoned, it would be the gifted Hungarian János Szász, who previously directed Mother Courage, Marat/Sade, and Uncle Vanya for the ART. Cutting O’Neill’s play loose from what critic Stark Young called its "unflinching realism," Szász turns Desire into a primal dust-up in a rock-strewn arena of dirt and gravel, with the rusting body of an old truck to one side. Ferociously played out by invested actors, the ART production of this iconic if nigh-unplayable drama is an anguished, aerobic, and balletic thing. No alchemists, the folks at ART can’t turn O’Neill’s intense but clunky cry of forbidden passion and mournful mother love into the masterpiece it was once thought to be. But they do deliver the playwright’s examination of human lust — for the land and for other humans – from period literalness and float it in a harsh, timeless realm where its power trumps its florid, Biblical pomposity.

O’Neill’s script begins with a detailed set description in which the arboreal presences of the title are described as brooding "oppressively over the house. They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof." At the ART, the entering audience negotiates rock chunks and pebbles before the tipped façade of a farmhouse that, as the play begins, rises to hover over the stone-bound arena. To cacophonous percussion, the three grown sons of Ephraim Cabot run repeatedly back and forth, up and down an incline, between a pile of stones and the upstage wall they are rebuilding. It looks like hard work: the rock on which the absent patriarch, who has worn out two wives and is off in search of another, has built his grasping, God-fearing life. By the time the 75-year-old cultivator of this stone pile returns with his 35-year-old bride, the two sons of his first wife are about to hightail it to the California gold fields, leaving half-brother Eben and stepmother Abbie to a Strindberg-worthy love-hate sexual dual and white-knuckled fight for the farm.

Szász, playing down the 19th-century dialect and paring away some plot details, turns the play into the subconscious-driven barnyard Greek tragedy O’Neill (who also experimented with this form in Mourning Becomes Electra) means it to be. The director’s exactingly choreographed production emphasizes the combative emotion and tragic trajectory of the play’s triangle of father, son, and interloping, acquisitive female. The play becomes a gritty ballet in which all interaction exudes aggression and distrust. Even Ephraim’s greeting of his defecting older sons (Peter Cambor and Shawtane Monroe Bowen) takes the form of bear hugs followed by shoves; murder never seems farther than a large rock away. Once the brothers are gone, the remaining threesome circle one another, coming together to grapple carnally but fully clothed, never leaving the stage except to slink to the periphery and hover like Judgment. Amelia Campbell’s Tonya Harding–like Abbie arrives in white trenchcoat, boots, and kneepads — the last of which, for all the trysting and tussling amid the rubble, she’s going to need. On first meeting his new stepmother, Mickey Solis’s brooding Eben pulls her off the ground by her lapels into a passionate embrace. Raymond J. Barry’s alpha-male Ephraim, in beaten-up long leather coat and hat, is part Indiana Jones, part Cotton Mather, ricocheting between brimstone and daze. Declaring himself "ripe on the bough," he hangs ominously upstage, a Jehovist presence, while wife and son go at making their illicit seedling. In the end, as Szász’s magisterial coda makes clear, Ephraim, finding God in the stones and fulfillment in work and the land, may be the one character redeemed.

The director also de-emphasizes the Oedipal crux of the play, in which Eben is able to channel his feeling for his dead mother into loving Abbie, something he intuits the maternal ghost approves of, as revenge on Ephraim. In Szász’s rendering, the prevailing myths are of Phaidra and Hippolytos and of Medeia — though the desperate Abbie does not turn infanticide out of rage so much as missed signals. And the remarkable Campbell, a pint-sized whirlwind with the savagery of a small animal, conveys her underprivileged character’s not-too-savvy, naked need. At first, seducing Eben over matching bath buckets, she appears in charge. But her Abbie sets to tremble as soon as Eben, convinced her ardor was part of a scheme to disinherit him, rejects her. And she doesn’t let up through painful crime or abject resolve to take her punishment.

Much of the Oedipal underpinning and the infernal guilt that find their way into O’Neill’s late, more overtly autobiographical masterpieces are here. Szász gets at them by cutting through the melodrama to the heightened emotion, both feral and redemptive. Abrupt shifts in the lighting (by Christopher Akerlind) signal Strange Interlude–ish leaps between inner revelation and surface speech. And David Remedios’s sound design constitutes a journey of its own, from percussive aggression to aching requiem. Szász may have reduced the elms to a couple of bare trunks, but he pulls us into the Freudian forest.

Love in The Buz’Gem Blues is like froth to O’Neill’s thick stew. Trinity Repertory Theatre offers the American regional premiere (through June 19) of this broad romantic comedy by Canadian playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, which drew enthusiastic response when given staged readings as part of Trinity’s 2001 and 2002 Native theater festivals, "Theater from the Four Directions." Taylor is an Ojibway from Central Ontario, and his explorations of Native culture have run the gamut from stand-up comedy to plays and screenplays to journalism. Here he riffs on romance and identity among a one-liner-wielding sextet of Indians, wanna-bes, and palefaces convening at an Elders Conference at a Canadian university.

The evening is overseen by Professor Savage (Timothy Crowe), a cultural anthropologist who’s researching the courting habits of Canadian Aboriginals. Eventually all the characters wind up being interviewed — though neither questions nor answers are probing. Also on hand is elder Amos (Dennis Ambriz), who arrives for chef’s duties with his 25-year-old girlfriend Summer (Miriam Silverman), who is 1/64th Aboriginal and exploring that fraction of her identity with the goofy zealotry of Goldie Hawn crossed with Pocahontas. Then there is elder Martha (Sheila Tousey), who has been coaxed by her divorced daughter Marianne (Cheri Maracle-Cardinal) to impart her knowledge of the Ojibway tongue. Rounding out the group is a young man (Darrell Dennis) who, having abandoned Star Trek geekdom to become a radical Native, calls himself the Warrior Who Never Sleeps, a crusading identity that requires shades, beads, and exaggerated hand gestures.

At the heart of Buz’Gem (which is Ojibway for "sweetheart") is the burgeoning attraction between Amos and the no-nonsense Martha (who upon seeing Summer asks him, "How’d your first wife die — her tricycle fall on her?"). Despite being from conflicting tribes and religions, the two elders bond over their furtive love of Spam, which was liberally dispensed by the government during the time of their youths on the reserves.

All of this is as light as one of Summer’s chokeberry parfaits and often as arbitrary . You do have to credit Taylor for his one-liners, which come fast, furious, and funny. (My favorite is Amos’s claim, since he likes his canned meat cooked or right from the tin, to being "Spambidextrous.") Certainly it’s difficult to fault Trinity’s effort to tap a culture underrepresented in the theater and to field a good cast that’s two-thirds Native, under the direction of Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company artistic director Kennetch Charlette. Still, couldn’t the First People have come up with an Arthur Miller before a Neil Simon? The Wang Center for the Performing Arts wrapped the second season of its "American Voices" series of staged readings at the Shubert Theatre last week with a powerful rendering of Miller’s All My Sons. Steven Maler directed, and afterward he read a news clipping that underlined the relevancy of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award–winning 1947 drama, Miller’s first success. The reading format itself, which divorced the play from its postwar backyard and period trappings, may have helped drive home its pertinence to a time in which profiteering is saluted as often as the flag.

All My Sons centers on businessman Joe Keller, who prospered in World War II by selling plane-engine parts to the armed forces but harbors an ugly secret. What was notable about this reading was the way in which, with actors holding scripts and interacting behind music stands, it nonetheless created the suffocating nuclear-family dynamic that is moralist Miller’s greatest strength. Tony winner Blair Brown, the guest artist, did not shy from the adamancy of matriarch Kate Keller. Will Lyman cut through his patrician elegance to get at how mechanic-turned-mogul Joe’s dominating bonhomie turns to anguished self-justification. And John Buffalo Mailer and Stacy Fischer brought a nice mix of period innocence and steeliness to young Chris Keller and his dead brother’s girl, Ann. Note to Wang honcho Joe Spaulding: White Christmas, spreading its snow on stage and audience, sounds nice, but try some tougher nostalgia and give this one another outing.

Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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