Waiting for Neo
A too-sweet apocalypse at University Theatre
by Rick Levin
Before I embark, with no particular pleasure, on a discussion of the University Theatre’s well acted, pretty to look at but deeply problematic production of Burning Vision — a layered, time-tripping fable/myth by British Columbian playwright Marie Clements, who centers her juggling act of narrative pieces on the detonation of a nuclear bomb — let me confess that I typically dislike watching characters that are too obviously puppets yanked by the strings of a playwright’s ideas, especially when those strings call attention to themselves with grand gestures of a unified theory of salvation.
|Round Rose (Barbie Wu). Photo by Ariel Ogden.|
What I do appreciate are strong, immersive narratives that move with poetic economy and relentless logic toward some sort of revelation. Yes, Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” jazzes me to its last syllable but, in general, I am more drawn to the vernacular talk of three-dimensional characters, and what elevates a work for me is acute attention to the oddly telling detail — the way a broken stop sign or cracked coffee mug can capture some essential truth far more movingly than a fancy flight of dialogue. And one more thing: There are as many visions of the coming apocalypse as there are people to imagine it. My personal preference runs toward Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a hypnotically bleak story that is unsparingly unsentimental about the post-apocalyptic survival of anything. In turn, I find it hard to stomach depictions of Armageddon that offer, in the final tally, a Panglossian vision of humanity that maintains an unflinching belief in the essential goodness of our species, and that treats all of us getting vaporized as an opportunity to wax as mock-philosophical as a fractured fairy tale.
Burning Vision, while well acted and admirably directed by Theresa May, is ultimately scorched by its own schizophrenic tendency to over-reach and under-develop at once, resulting in a wonky doodle hodgepodge of half-baked ideas and humanistic platitudes offered up by characters so stereotypical and predictable they seem embryonic. And so, in this theater-in-the-round production of interlocking stories jumping back and forth in time, we encounter such stock types as the angry, besieged white guy, complete with waxen hair (literally) and an unexamined life lived in his Lay-Z-Boy; the idealized nurturing nurse woman, here a bread baker named Rose (the excellent Maggie Corona-Goldstein), who becomes a sort of post-lapsarian Virgin Mary (get it, she’s got a BUN IN THE OVEN!); the folksy Native American oracle whose metaphorical, allegorical talk that so hardens the nipples of romanticizing liberals everywhere; the seafaring captain whose curse-filled plain talk is employed like a Buckminster Fuller beacon, leading humanity to the shores of reason; and so on. I kept waiting for Neo from The Matrix or some blue Avatar thingy to show up, just for the refreshment of a little word-free ass kicking, but no such luck. The characters in this play say things like “Even when we’re home, we want to go home,” or, my favorite, “I think I should get laid while thinking about death,” a line that reinvents the wheel and runs itself over at once — not quite le petit mort, if you know what I mean. Imagine being stuck in a cage with a philosophy student on Ecstasy, and you’ll begin to see why the vision burns. It becomes not only exhausting but annoying to contemplate characters whose dialogue is little more than profundities interspersed with truisms and ham-fisted satire. Profundity functions as a relief from the mundane, a way of putting a bow on a moment or capping off an idea. But when every utterance is
profound, every profundity becomes mundane.
Granted, tackling the world’s end is no easy task, and Clements, a Métis playwright with loads of talent, is nothing if not ambitious. Combining the traditions of Native American (Dene, to be specific) storytelling with a cyclical narrative technique that treats the past, present and future as occurring simultaneously, she attempts to demonstrate, vis-à-vis nuclear holocaust, the familiar “butterfly flapping its wings” adage that says even the smallest gesture can have worldwide implications. Kurt Vonnegut employed a similar technique in his WWII novel Slaughterhouse Five, the difference being that Vonnegut grounded his very post-modern time travel in the gritty reality of the Dresden bombing. Clements’ play has no such anchor keeping its elastic existentialism in check. The result is that her ideas overwhelm her better instincts, and she deals out characters like playing cards in a game of Go Fish. Because of this, the concept of humanity’s interconnectedness — not only valid but deadly crucial in these times — gets lost in the shuffle. For my nickel, a play like Glengary Glen Ross has more to say about our impending doom than Burning Vision, which shows lots of flash but little spark.
Suzi Steffen’s interview with director Theresa May is online at EW! A Blog. Burning Vision continues through March 13 at the University Theatre. Tix at http://wkly.ws/e0 or 541-346-4363.