I was trying to figure out how to review the play I saw last night. If Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is racist, then this was racist in overplus, or at least the case could credibly be made, yet I bet no one calls out the production or the company, one of Chicago's preeminent.
The play itself merits no criticism, but structural racism needs to be contemplated, and aberrations (however much of the norm) in the arts need to be related to it. But I’m not up to the task of social criticism.
The play was like a pastiche of Abbott-and-Costello-in-Africa type hijinks, mixed with a touch of social conscience and a dash of Duck Soup. But if you're going to imitate Abbott and Costello or the Marx Brothers, you’d best be up to their level in execution. Neither cast nor script passed clumsy; and I would bet even the original films that were copied have aged poorly.
That did not stop the audience from yucking it up, or giving the de rigueur (or perfunctory) standing ovation all but the best theater in Chicago receives. But the audience comprised well-healed elderly white folk predominantly. They may not be expected to have thought about Africa or colonialism (why?), but the play will not play well to another demographic, or even the same demographic at a later date, at least among those who have given thought.
Although the play was billed as a farce, you can’t throw a bunch of businessmen and deal-makers into an unnamed African country without some acknowledgement that colonialists have a history there. Even in a farce, Africa is not tabula rasa. None of the characters, or persons in the play, rose above cliche and caricature (not to mention the prerecorded preshow announcement that was worse than any Apu and half as funny).
Comedy works perfectly well with flat, one-dimensional characters. But take the Saudi character. It requires more than a headscarf to make a Saudi. The boner joke (visual) didn’t bother me; at least that was straight out of Aristophanes. Why not steal from the best. But when the sudden flip-flop occurs and he “comes out” as homosexually inclined, some recognition must be accorded that even a prince would not be so flamboyantly self-revealing. (The context could be established to set up the ludicrous, lewd behavior, but the playwright failed to do so.) A gay man in heat is not intrinsically funny, and his nudity in the second act, excessive, was not much to look at either. However, let me concede, the audience lapped it up.
Viewed technically—through the eyes of a dramatist—the play was no failure. Physically moving people around on the stage (speaking scriptorially, not directorially), the playwright revealed a sometimes deft hand; but there again, a poor casting choice taught me something about technique that would serve me well, if I could foresee myself writing a mistaken-identity farce of this nature.
The play might well have been titled “The Double,” and this would have been truer to the play’s scenario than the more pretentious and unsupported alternative that the playwright went with. Shakespeare notoriously has a boy-and-girl identical twin pair in one play, a mistake Plautus never made, from whom Shakespeare drew his inspiration—but the set-up is a comedic standard.
One actor played a dual role. To handle scenes in which both characters appeared on stage simultaneously, the playwright always had one in fencing gear, with his face covered (or otherwise covered). This would normally work; but the theater cast in the masked role an actor of a different build than the protagonist, a thinner man, and so the discrepancy was immediately obvious, and distracting, whenever he appeared. It would have been better to cast two actors with similar features, establish the identity, and then allow them to appear simultaneously unmasked. But that would have required a different playwright—a Shakespeare perhaps—confident enough to effect such a “suspension of disbelief” in his audience. The audience becomes a willing accessory to the illusion, an active participant, and I doubt that our audience in Chicago is any worse than Shakespeare’s.
I was lured to the play under false pretenses, or at least mistaken ones. I thought that my favorite local director was directing; but he was only listed as “Artistic Producer” (I’m not sure as to the function of such a producer in a theater of such stature and reputation: I thought the company was the producer. But he may have had a hand in the play’s selection, and his track record in choosing has been far from stellar.)
I also wanted to see an actress that I had seen in Agamemnon at the Court Theater a few years back. I sought her once previously in another local play, portraying what critic Chris Jones characterized as “a hard-boiled investigative reporter,” a dismal role in a different sort of well-intentioned theatrical posturing. It was a meatier role than last night’s; in neither case permitting the actress her potential, and in both my hopeful expectations were disappointed. I can see why Clytemnestra would be the role of a lifetime. (The audience failed to stand for that production, and its performers, though by rights such an ovation was earned and deserved.)
This does not address the central failing of the play. Gags—no matter how well performed—will not make up for a poor dramatic arc, or fractured conception. In this play, the deficiency might best be characterized as its childishness, both in terms of individual human interactions and politics on the grand scale. Comedy can fly well enough without the psychological insight of, say, a Degas painting; but if the thing is rigged wrongly, it cannot fly.
Despite a last-ditch preachy soliloquy by a main character which attempts to inject social justice relevance into an otherwise formless jumble of shenanigans, neither the pontification nor the politics defeat the play. As Michael Ventura pegged it in 2004,
Americans of the left as well as the right are an immature people hell-bent on remaining immature. The mass media market immaturity so successfully because Americans crave immaturity on a mass scale. Most of our entertainment and fashion, as well as the presentation of most news, and virtually all our phenomenally effective advertising, assumes that one must not treat Americans as adults – and America eats up such condescension manically, if not happily.