In the end, abandoned by the audience, two actors trapped in an unheated theater perform for an empty house to ward off the cold. Blanks swapped for bullets elevate murder-suicide from melodramatic plot device to ritual sacrifice. And when the shooting-within-a-shooting fails on both levels, the actor/characters are left with themselves, each other, an empty theater.
It’s a moment that captures the travails of the covid-era theater artist with the expressive precision of a daguerreotype tinted with blood. It’s like finding at the bottom of a shoebox full of yellowed newspaper clippings a dog-eared photograph of distant relatives in which we recognize–ourselves.
The resemblance to our current plight is no accident. “These words also capture the complicated journey of coming back to the stage in the IRC’s first in-person stage show post-pandemic,” writes Artistic Director Tina Brock in the program notes. As it happens, this review also marks the return of Reviews from Underground. Like survivors stepping out of a cellar and blinking in the footlights, we survey the ruins of our industry with a range of emotions: anger, a sense of incalculable loss, futility, an urge to retreat behind screens, but above all, a desire to rebuild.
And if The Two-Character Play is any indicator, there is reason to hope. Everyone was welcome, regardless of vaccine status. The house was full, the stage lavishly dressed, the acting impassioned, unabashedly theatrical. After all, this is a play about theater by a master of the theatrical gesture. And in the hands of a poet like Tennessee Williams, the play-within-a-play becomes far more than a clever framing device. It serves to sift the actors like wheat and arrive at rare moments of naked truth amid a cloud of chaff.
Not that chaff is a bad thing. It’s entertaining. And part of the process. It protects the kernel of the self and allows it to grow. It clothes the characters in amusing conceits. Tina Brock’s Clare and John Zak’s Felice shed it with each thrust and parry as they circle each other in a death match of the soul, choking on the echoes of their own absurdities.
And their commitment to these roles-within-roles is total. After nearly three years on a steady diet of carefully curated onscreen acting, what a relief to see actors splurge, chew scenery, yet remain fully within the bounds of believability. Their mastery of a difficult and sonorous text without the benefit of ten takes, an editor, and ADR reminded me why I fell in love with cinema’s poor relation in the first place. And Tennessee’s tale of a brother and sister on an underfunded tour of half-empty theaters reminded me of the cost. Now more than ever.
That said, I did feel the production could have benefited from a clearer distinction between narrative levels. Lighting shifts or differences in acting styles or dialects would have helped the audience distinguish play from meta-play, which in turn would have increased the impact when the two worlds ultimately converge. But that final convergence is so powerful that the occasional moments of confusion preceding it are easily forgiven as the characters’ own.
As mentioned earlier, the show’s impact derives in part from a resemblance to life under covid. While we may have been locked out of the theater rather than in, the hopeless isolation that settles over Clare and Felice as the lights fade to black still feels achingly familiar, especially for those of us whose exile from the stage lasted twice as long due to an absurd and unscientific prejudice against natural immunity.
So, hats off to Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium for making theater of the absurd a stylistic choice rather than an enforced reality, for unearthing this buried treasure, and for giving us something timely and moving to live through and write about.
It’s good to be home.
“The Two Character Play” ran from September 7-25 at The Bluver Theatre at The Drake as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. For more information visit idiopathicridiculopathyconsortium.org.