Unnatural Acts

By members of the Plastic Theatre
Conceived and directed by Tony Speciale
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13rd Street
production web site: http://www.classicstage.org/2011_unnatural.shtml

June 15, 2011 — July 10, 2011 (press opening June 23, 2011)

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 19, 2011

At curtain up on the three-sided stage, we are in the middle of an academic inquisition with spotlit chair downstage and upstage limned with books designed by Walt Spanger.  The Playbill and advance publicity tell us that the story to be told is of secretly persecuted young men at Harvard in 1920.   House music (design by Christian Frederickson) serenades with a jazzy Dixieland influenced instrumental.  Will this production involved a single room interrogation in which one after another of the young men tell their stories?  No, what Tony Speciale and his writing colleagues have crafted in two long and elaborate acts is both more and less than this.  Eleven actors and many more characters in courtroom interrogation moments and fancy-free Prohibition parties illustrate playing the system, playing by the rules, crumbling under social pressure, mental illness, mystery, collapsed time frames, ancient Greek theatre conventions, and harangues in the Normal Heart style about “how can we as a society condone repression” with characters who climb a bookcase and climb a table and climb to the mountaintop to scream their frustration. Many genres, many styles, all point to, illustrate, illuminate, obfuscate the story at this drama’s core: a set of Harvard men in 1920 are outed to the administration through means and a character revealed in the play’s final moments (ah yes, let’s add mystery story badly told as another dimension of the experience).  The Harvard administration responds out of the mores of the time — as a conservative single sex institution, it does not condone homosexuality and its perceived threats to the existing status quo.  This group-written piece has group-written decision-making written all over it.  Clear choices must be made.

In 1920 a young man we do not meet in this dramatic retelling commits suicide in his hometown.  Back at Harvard where the bulk of the play’s action takes place (all save a final problematic scene late in the play back in this same town), in this year of 1920, deep in Prohibition, pre Depression era belt-tightening, some of his old roommates and classmates and other familiars pause for a moment to attend his funeral, then return to Harvard (and a particular dorm room — Perkins 28) to live it up and enjoy private homosexual relationships.  Shortly thereafter and during “reading period” (a two-week period after class meetings conclude and prior to blue book writing for final exams), some of these friends (or all of them?  we’re not sure in this telling of the story) are called before an internal disciplinary/investigatory tribunal, a “secret court”, to determine the nature of the students’ relations with the deceased ex-student and, by extension, their relations with each other.  In the end some students are expelled, some are put on temporary probation, some are not disciplined at all. Did all of the play’s action including the final scene off the Harvard campus take place during finals period?  Unclear.  Establishing that kind of time bound clarity would enhance the focus and theatrical pressure points of this piece.

Instructing the audience earlier than over halfway through the play about a relatively rare concept such as “reading period” is an opportunity lost by the playwriting team. Harvard graduates know (and others in general do not) that there the semester ends not with final examinations immediately but with an initial class farewell from the professor and a weight over your head for another few weeks (a heightened low-grade intensity) in which you complete the reading and work you may not have completed during the semester.  Reading period is a kind of intense preparatory and focused period of study by design out-of-step with the rest of the action of the school year.  During this time the ordinary routines of the semester are suspended, people are off in their corners studying, those who are NOT studying are demonstrating something even more unconventional than simply having fun — they’re thwarting the rules and potentially sabotaging their academic chances.  Inherently dramatic context, not fully explained.

I wrote recently about my perceptions of the current production of Larry Kramer‘s The Normal Heart about the initial years of the AIDS epidemic and some real individuals (with fictional names) of Kramer’s acquaintance who played roles in those years.  That play is a passion play, a political diatribe, intended less as a theatrical work of art and more as a means to get our attention as audience members and citizens (and more important to take political action to ensure AIDS research, service funding, and supports of all kinds are funded domestically and abroad).  That play is not very successful drama as drama, in my humble opinion, and yet it stays true to its style.  Focused, angry, pared.  Unnatural Acts, on the other hand, attempts to be a little bit Brideshead Revisited (swapping Oxford for Harvard, during roughly the same time period), a little bit Greek passion play (chorus and narrator and final chorus movement sequence evoking emotions), a little bit trial drama, a little bit political harangue, and in the final moments a poorly explicated mystery story.   And the whole is less than a number of its parts.

The process used to develop this work is to be commended — my dramaturg’s heart loves the references in playbill essays to research and investigation and collaborative explorations of theme and arcs.  What still remains before this team is the mandate to make choices among the researched gems.  There are too many threads, too many genres, too many archetypes for this to be truly powerful theatre.  Inherit the Wind about the 1920s Scopes “Monkey Trial” gives us speeches inspired by actual court transcripts, additional contrived exchanges outside the courtroom, and a reality pared down.  To Kill A Mockingbird similarly crafts a full range of individuals outside and within a court trial about black-white romantic relations alleged in a Jim Crow southern world.  Death and the Maiden gives us drama in the context of interrogation as a metaphor for cultural oppression  — the interrogation room, in a sense, is the world of the play.  In Unnatural Acts, there are a few too many worlds, a few too many stories, an uneasy balance between tribunal sessions and imagined student interactions, and an unnecessary narrator who reflects the inability or reluctance on the part of the creative team to make some essential paring choices.

The moments that take off for me as theatre, outside the conventional proscenium thrust storytelling of the boys-at-school stuff — involve inherently theatrical sequences.  At the top of Act Two, two of the young men deliver to us as proxy members of the tribunal their lines in parallel, their stories in parallel, culminating with one or the other of them ratting the other out.  It’s thrilling stuff and sets me up for wanting more.  The interrogation scenes with faculty faces in shadow and students sitting center stage in bright light, responding in a vacuum to questions outrageous by contemporary standards (“Do you masturbate?” asked at one point of one student) — these are theatre.  The dorm party scenes and imagined homoerotic encounters are overly long, seem the result of extended improvisation sessions with the actors, and are less tautly connected to the storytelling through line.

In the end, this feels like a story looking for its feet on the stage.  A story that is among hundreds or thousands of such stories around the country within hundreds or thousands of institutions enforcing social bigotry through subtle and overt, legal and illegal means.  Harvard itself was among many institutions that ousted faculty and students with leftist political leanings during another historical era, for example.  I found this one historical series of events troubling, yet nothing about this “secret court” suggested these were unique events. The core dramatic details have not yet been discovered.  Because there are so many different stories among the different men, I spend much too much time attempting to keep them straight.  This could be a wash of images, a pastiche of experiences, or we can get to know and feel the lives of a few of these young men well.  Standing somewhere in the middle of that AND a stylized noir-y investigation story AND a last-minute mystery reveal AND Greek chorus choreographed movements complete with stomping chairs AND being harangued from the bookshelves, well. I’ll just say I longed for a few choices.  Blending the small focus detailed scenes with the hyper stylized presentations creates in this case not a rich tapestry but effects a deflation of each separate world’s (and style’s) power.

Curiosity led me to an internet search for discussions of this case.  I quickly located a Harvard Crimson article [see http://tinyurl.com/3z86da7] about a 2008 documentary Perkins 28 based on this same case, these same stories. In this article Michael Van Devere discusses his exclusive focus in his film on the panel discussions themselves rather than imagining other events among the men (parties, liaisons, discussion), choosing to hold closely to the documents unearthed in 2002 that also in part inspired Unnatural Acts.  “I decided that recreating those events would be false, whereas the testimony is right there, ready for exposure,” he says. “The film looks like one interview after the other, more or less talking heads. I think that was truer to the events within the office of the court as opposed to creating fictionalized, sentimental, romantic portraits of these men.”  The Unnatural Acts theatre makers confront the same challenge with the raw materials of this story: focus the storytelling, select a storytelling style, pare details.  Determine which few among these voices would inform a theatrical event that can resonant beyond the documentary.  Choose.  The story is important.  Choose.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 23, 2011)

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