Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Faith and Consquences?

"That picture! Why, some people might lose their faith by looking at
that picture."
So says the character of Myshkin in Dostoevsky's The Idiot. The subject of his observation is the stark painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger. (below) 

But, like the infamous photo Piss Christ, I think Holbein was up to something a little more than sowing the seeds of atheism.

At the Boston Center for the Arts Ronan Noone is also up to something a little more in his play titled The Atheist. His slick tabloid journalist, Augustine Early, (played by Cambpell Scott with a smirking satisfaction,) leads the audience through a labyrinth of his amoral muckraking. The key, this ink-stained wretch reminds us, (early and often,) is that without a belief in God you are free to the buffet.

Speaking into a tripod-fixed video camera, Augustine (pronounced August-teen,) hip to the way the world works, tells us of his talent for dissembling at a tender young age. Taking his single mother along for the ride, he schemed his family through the welfare system and the bureaucracies of affordable housing lotteries.

Campbell Scott in The Atheist at the Calderwood
He eventually lands a freelance job at a Midwestern city daily, and his nose for the underside of the mainstream gives him a juicy scoop about an Elian Gonzalez-type situation. However, he soon stalls in his ascension until a tryst with an aspiring young actress leads him to a story that has every ingredient for a cable-ready scandal.

The play's production coincides with the Larry Craig episode, and I couldn't help equating Augustine Early to the journalists at the Idaho Statesman suddenly being thrust into the bright lights of the national cable shark tank at feeding time.

Mr. Scott, wearing a light-colored suit and speaking to us in a Midwestern/Southern accent, has an irresistible charm and is a natural for the piece, even if the age of the protagonist gets a little lost in the translation. (It seems that Early jumps from being a teenager to the news business, but just how long he languishes in obscurity is a little vague.) If the tale is in the telling, Scott has us mesmerized. Augustine's life, at least as he tells it, is fodder for a feature story if not a feature film.

But what we are to make of Augustine's life is another story. Are we looking into the abyss? Is this a cautionary tale?

The original Saint Augustine, telling of his "early" years, had distance and a conversion through which to frame a portrait of the sowing of his wild oats. It is a dawning Noone's character could possibly be gaining. After a lifetime of screwing everybody in order to get to the front of the line, perhaps Augustine Early is learning that the food at the buffet isn't all it's cracked up to be?

Here is Saint Augustine on his famous sin of stealing pears:

Those pears were truly pleasant to the sight, but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had an abundance of better pears. I stole those simply that I might steal, for, having stolen them, I threw them away. My sole gratification in them was my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy; for, if any one of these pears entered my mouth, the only good flavor it had was my sin in eating it. And now, O Lord my God, I ask what it was in that theft of mine that caused me such delight; for behold it had no beauty of its own --

If the slick Augustine of Noone's play is feeling this at all near the end of the evening, it is very deep down, and the wry smirk which trumpeted his superiority at the beginning, now signals only his acceptance at being played a fool by people better at the game.

Saint Augustine's spiritual influences, (his Mom and Saint Ambrose,) were instrumental in his conversion. But, (as Thomas Garvey points out in the Hubreview,) while Early is briefly affected by the piety of a certain female character, it seems too little too late, both in the play and for Early's chances at redemption. And, as Bill Marx mentions in his Artsfuse review, without the redemptive possibilities, Mr. Augustine Early, charmer though he is, may not be scheming on a large enough stage. He makes comparison's to Richard III. (Personally, I was hoping to see Noone's delightfully sneaky schemer try to capitalize on what has become a standard in the world of the 24 hours news cycle: Rehab.)

With the more obscure title of Psychosis 4:48, the Fort Point Theater Channel's production of British playwright Sarah Kane's most known and produced work, gets people a lot closer to Myshkin's exclamation about Holbein.

Psychosis 4:48 has closed, with only the Weekly Dig penning a review, The Atheist continues through September 30th.

On a small, stark set of white, in a theater that is really just a room that is under construction, Psychosis 4:48, plays out as a battle between a depressed young woman and her therapist. Of course, this is not the only way the play can be presented. Kane's text is basically written like a long poem with no stage directions and has been performed as a solo show, a two-hander and even with 6 different actresses playing the text out.

This production almost reads like a post-modern version of Marsha Norman's 'night Mother, (Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn in a recent production,) with all of the devastating finality of that play's final gunshot. But Psychosis is, at the same time, more intimate, and more distancing than Norman's straightforward, realistic presentation. (The clock on the set of 'night Mother is functional and reads the real time.)

Alternating between too-clever-by-half wordplay and painfully deep confrontations with the abyss of a world that has been bled of its vitality, the script allows the two actresses, Elizabeth Anne Hayes and Lisa Tucker to veer between Shakespearean flights of Kane's poetry and quiet studies of the brief moments of drama.

"I feel like I am eighty years old," Hayes's character helplessly murmurs at one point. But she also make jokes, ("My doctor told me I had eight minutes to live, but I had just spent a half hour in the waiting room.") When Tucker's therapist asks her if she cut her arm "to feel relief," the patient challenges, "Why don't you ask me WHY I did it?" This is the key question, it would seem to me. And it echoes more profoundly once the therapist finally relents and asks this direct question, only to be met with a excruciating silence. The patient cannot, it appears, articulate an answer, and as an audience member, I didn't want her to articulate it.

In the play's opening moments, Tucker stalks Hayes about the four corners of the stage only to ask the most unhelpful questions, "You have friends, what is it of value that you give to your friends?" The insufficient nature of these inquiries is intensified after seeing the full throes of a deep psychotic episode later in the play. This moment is followed by the evening's most still and most engrossing image: Tucker holds the spent, exhausted and still trembling Hayes and strokes her forehead and her hair.

The despairing situation of the clinically depressed is problematically embraced by the arts. Peter Kramer in his book Against Depression talks of how the idea of "melancholy" has not helped things. At every stop on his first book tour he was inevitably asked what he called the "Van Gogh question."

Would Van Gogh, without his depression, still have been Van Gogh?

Writing in Salon, Laura Miller said that it is a tough question to answer, but, she adds, at least we might have had more paintings.

Kramer starts Against Depression by telling of patients who, after finding the right medication and being "restored," come to him angry that they had considered and had given credence to certain unhappy feelings about areas of their lives that were, in actuality, not going so poorly. They liken it to having been held captive by an insurgent government and forced to confess to things that were not true.

Kane's script is lucid, but is it really a way for us to interpret what it is like to suffer mental illness or depression? No. That doesn't make it bad though. It is an unflinching look at existence itself and the alternatives facing those who find themselves, through a chemical imbalance, on the bleak side of that existence.

In a sequence that details litany of medications and their results and side effects on the "patient," we see the exasperation for those who cannot find the right mix of pharmaceuticals.

What is left?

Noone's Atheist may not be seeking any salvation, but, to paraphrase one reviewer of Holbein's painting, it would seem that only a miracle could save the protagonist of Kane's vision.

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