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Theater in San Diego, 1980

The Lady Cries Murder, Buried Child
The Lady Cries Murder, Buried Child

Frankly, I can't see why anyone would want to have total recall, the ability to recollect at will every moment of his life on the instamatic lens of the mind's eye. Such an ability, no doubt, would certainly have its uses — beyond putting shrinks out of business, that is. A theater critic, for example, wouldn't have to spend too many frantic, beard-tugging /gobs of time trying to remember the important details of a play he is reviewing, especially when the notes he has jotted down in a darkened theater are as readable, in the light of day, as a string of hieroglyphics for which there is no known code. And then there are those occasions when the play is so engrossing as to lure the observer through its surface, past all the details and illusions, and into a new terrain that captures successfully a portion of human experience — so that the critic may find himself forgetting his note-taking responsibilities altogether. With total recall, he could merely plug in his trusty, anti-forgetfulness cassette of the play and could review at his leisure the various features that combined to have the effect thev did on him. This would constitute a sort of Home Box Office, instant-replay approach to theatrical criticism.

But wait just one minute. Total recall for a critic, or anybody else for that matter, certainly has its drawbacks. It is often the case that there are theatrical productions one would like to eliminate from memory completely — those evenings when the play was all surface and gimmicks and contrived illusions. On such occasions, instant replay is hardly desirable; instead, they necessitate either a twenty-second injury time-out or, in extreme instances, a mild form of retrograde amnesia.

Looking back on the plays I have seen in the last several months, what comes first to mind — itself an imperfect editor of memory at best — are a number of fragmentary theatrical moments which have lodged themselves in the cranial hemisphere that holds out its vacancy sign, impartially it turns out, for such things. These fragments, little glimpses into the drama, enable me to recall the larger play from which they came. An event in the ordinary world can trigger them. Every time a jet plane flies overhead, for example, I half expect everyone in the immediate vicinity — as the actors and musicians must do, unfortunately, in a production at the Starlight Bowl — to finish their last sentence and freeze, suspending their efforts until the wake of noise trailing the jet has passed safely out of range. The memory of periodically frozen musicals, still-lifes at the Starlight for which there appears to be no remedy, intrudes upon the otherwise lively nature of their productions and creates an instance where life upstages art and foreshortens recollection of the plays themselves.

The sight of a lowly vacuum cleaner can bring back to mind the wonderful special effects of feezmoh by Wolfgang von Gobaldi, a "new-wave space opera" produced by the Marquis West Broadway Theater, with its hodgepodge of pseudoscientific, cosmic gizmos, among which were two vacuum cleaners: one able mysteriously to sustain and even to resurrect human life, and the other a giraffe-like enemy probe. But this fragment harkens back memories of the play itself, an

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thing in motion in The Lady Cries Murder — and I suspect that playwright John William See would have some trouble recalling it himself.

But at the drop of a cigarette I remember vividly many individual performances — Lee Carpenter's watery femme fatale tune, a la Marlene Dietrich; Robert McKenna's speedy septuagenarian butler who enjoys quoting Emmanuel Kant; Robert Larson's heartless Henry Sar-tone, a plagiarizing hack; and, of course, Hinkston's Phillip Diamond, in whom he combined Humphrey Bogart and Lieutenant Columbo, an infelicitous hybrid Hinkston sustained with commanding ease.

The orchestration of these moments, under the able directiori of Christopher R, made for an evening of hard-paced horseplay, irreverence for practically everything, and a |oyous mosaic ot wit. It may have been unpleasant experience for the most part, since the special effects — audaciously cheap when compared to the millions of dollars needed by George Lukas to make one of his science-fiction epics — were the best thing this play had going for it.

On the more pleasurable side, 1 remember vividly Doug Hinkston's entrance, at the opening of the San Diego Repertory Theatre's The Lady Cries Murder, a delightful spoof of detective fiction written by John William See. Wearing a trench coat, with his hat pulled down to the rim of his somber eyes, Hinkston stands under a street lamp, reaches into a pocket, and pulls out a pack of (green-labeled?) Lucky Strike cigarettes. He lights up a Lucky with all the cool assurance of Phillip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's ace sleuth, takes one or two deliberate, pensive puffs, drops it casually to the ground, and stamps it out. All's fine thus far. The moves are mimetically in keeping with their generic prototypes. But then Hinkston reaches back into his pocket.

pulls out and lights another Lucky Strike and, as Dorothy says to her dog Toto when the world outside her house goes from black-and-white to technicolor, "1 don't think we're in Kansas anymore."

For lovers of detective stories, expecting the basic decencies of a mystery, Hinkston's initial violation of the code had all the impact, say, of a Perrier drought in La Jolla. From that point on, See's play consistently twisted every convention of the genre, and wonderfully well, filling the play with friendly little warps, deviations from the unexpected, comic turns and reversals — all governed by an irrepressible spirit of theatrical anarchy and geared to liberate the audience from whatever cozy anticipations it brought to the theater.

The cast, led by Hinkston, was solid all down the line. Every performer, hamming up his or her part just a sneeze away from pure farce, communicated above all else a distinct pleasure in doing the play. To this day 1 cannot recall who done it or what he/she did that set every-

silly, but it was my kind of silly. And as a result of having enjoyed the Rep's production of The Lady Cries Murder, it is difficult for me to regard any detective story in the old, venerable way. Now I expect Phillip Marlowe, or Humphrey Bogart, to discard his cigarette on some "mean street" and then light up another one immediately.

Another fragment comes to mind, in many ways the antithesis of the previous one. I can still remember too clearly Biff Wiff rowling out his throat and depositing its excess fluids behind the couch on the stage of the Marquis Public Theater during their production of Sam Shepard's grisly Buried Child. Where Hinkston's gesture set the tone for the See play, Wiff's discharge of phlegm did the same for Buried Child; once again we were a long way — let's hope — from Dorothy's beloved Kansas.

And given the themes of this play about American Gothic cruelty and nihilism — plus the dismal view of human nature it presents, with people having all the moral fortitude of squid — it would be fine with me if Mnemosyne, the Greek's personification of memory, would take time off and allow me to forget the brutal scenes of Buried Child: the unfeeling inhumanity', the meaningless lives, and the blind, self-indulgent sadism at the heart of every character in the play. But the Marquis Public Theater's production of Buried Child, under the excellent direction of Tavis Ross, was too powerful to be sealed away from memory. Ross and a superb cast created an atmosphere that was completely absorbing. They mirrored Shepard's ability to fill the theater with more than sufficient horror and, simultaneously, to suggest that what one saw was by no means — to employ a currently fashionable and tiresome expression — the "bottom line."

On the surface, where we did not remain for long. Buried Child was about two rainy days in the life of a Midwestern family (though the author suggested every now' and then that this was, in essence, the Family of Man). It concluded with the death ot Dodge, the patriarch of the clan, and with the rise of young Vince, who inherited the farm as well as the repulsive habits of his predecessor. During these two rainy days, an unscheduled family reunion took place, one that w’ould test the squirm-tolerance levels'of even the most jaded members of the audience.

All the performances in the production were excellent. The production, in fact, made the play. In particular. Biff Wiff's work as Dodge, the enemy of hope, still lingers in the mind — as do Bill Dunnam's efforts as Tilden, Dodge's younger son who had a few "troubles" in New Mexico. Rather than load his part with unnecessary dramatics — something the entire cast consistently refused to do — Dunnam played down his extremely disturbing character to the point that any subtle gesture became proper cause for sudden alarm, this latter being the overall effect the play had on me.

There is a phenomenon called "plastic memory," which is the ability of certain plastics, after being deformed, to resume their original shape when heated. Television and several of the plays I saw this year have the same effect on the mind. But both The Lady Cries Murder, a production that argues for total recall, and Buried Child, an argument for retrograde amnesia because the production was so convincing, were powerful enough not to allow the mind, as is the case with plastic memory, to leave the theater and return to its normal mode of seeing things. Both remain, each in its own way, among the most memorable productions I saw — and can see again any time someone discards a cigarette or, perish the thought, clears his throat.

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The Lady Cries Murder, Buried Child
The Lady Cries Murder, Buried Child

Frankly, I can't see why anyone would want to have total recall, the ability to recollect at will every moment of his life on the instamatic lens of the mind's eye. Such an ability, no doubt, would certainly have its uses — beyond putting shrinks out of business, that is. A theater critic, for example, wouldn't have to spend too many frantic, beard-tugging /gobs of time trying to remember the important details of a play he is reviewing, especially when the notes he has jotted down in a darkened theater are as readable, in the light of day, as a string of hieroglyphics for which there is no known code. And then there are those occasions when the play is so engrossing as to lure the observer through its surface, past all the details and illusions, and into a new terrain that captures successfully a portion of human experience — so that the critic may find himself forgetting his note-taking responsibilities altogether. With total recall, he could merely plug in his trusty, anti-forgetfulness cassette of the play and could review at his leisure the various features that combined to have the effect thev did on him. This would constitute a sort of Home Box Office, instant-replay approach to theatrical criticism.

But wait just one minute. Total recall for a critic, or anybody else for that matter, certainly has its drawbacks. It is often the case that there are theatrical productions one would like to eliminate from memory completely — those evenings when the play was all surface and gimmicks and contrived illusions. On such occasions, instant replay is hardly desirable; instead, they necessitate either a twenty-second injury time-out or, in extreme instances, a mild form of retrograde amnesia.

Looking back on the plays I have seen in the last several months, what comes first to mind — itself an imperfect editor of memory at best — are a number of fragmentary theatrical moments which have lodged themselves in the cranial hemisphere that holds out its vacancy sign, impartially it turns out, for such things. These fragments, little glimpses into the drama, enable me to recall the larger play from which they came. An event in the ordinary world can trigger them. Every time a jet plane flies overhead, for example, I half expect everyone in the immediate vicinity — as the actors and musicians must do, unfortunately, in a production at the Starlight Bowl — to finish their last sentence and freeze, suspending their efforts until the wake of noise trailing the jet has passed safely out of range. The memory of periodically frozen musicals, still-lifes at the Starlight for which there appears to be no remedy, intrudes upon the otherwise lively nature of their productions and creates an instance where life upstages art and foreshortens recollection of the plays themselves.

The sight of a lowly vacuum cleaner can bring back to mind the wonderful special effects of feezmoh by Wolfgang von Gobaldi, a "new-wave space opera" produced by the Marquis West Broadway Theater, with its hodgepodge of pseudoscientific, cosmic gizmos, among which were two vacuum cleaners: one able mysteriously to sustain and even to resurrect human life, and the other a giraffe-like enemy probe. But this fragment harkens back memories of the play itself, an

Sponsored
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thing in motion in The Lady Cries Murder — and I suspect that playwright John William See would have some trouble recalling it himself.

But at the drop of a cigarette I remember vividly many individual performances — Lee Carpenter's watery femme fatale tune, a la Marlene Dietrich; Robert McKenna's speedy septuagenarian butler who enjoys quoting Emmanuel Kant; Robert Larson's heartless Henry Sar-tone, a plagiarizing hack; and, of course, Hinkston's Phillip Diamond, in whom he combined Humphrey Bogart and Lieutenant Columbo, an infelicitous hybrid Hinkston sustained with commanding ease.

The orchestration of these moments, under the able directiori of Christopher R, made for an evening of hard-paced horseplay, irreverence for practically everything, and a |oyous mosaic ot wit. It may have been unpleasant experience for the most part, since the special effects — audaciously cheap when compared to the millions of dollars needed by George Lukas to make one of his science-fiction epics — were the best thing this play had going for it.

On the more pleasurable side, 1 remember vividly Doug Hinkston's entrance, at the opening of the San Diego Repertory Theatre's The Lady Cries Murder, a delightful spoof of detective fiction written by John William See. Wearing a trench coat, with his hat pulled down to the rim of his somber eyes, Hinkston stands under a street lamp, reaches into a pocket, and pulls out a pack of (green-labeled?) Lucky Strike cigarettes. He lights up a Lucky with all the cool assurance of Phillip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's ace sleuth, takes one or two deliberate, pensive puffs, drops it casually to the ground, and stamps it out. All's fine thus far. The moves are mimetically in keeping with their generic prototypes. But then Hinkston reaches back into his pocket.

pulls out and lights another Lucky Strike and, as Dorothy says to her dog Toto when the world outside her house goes from black-and-white to technicolor, "1 don't think we're in Kansas anymore."

For lovers of detective stories, expecting the basic decencies of a mystery, Hinkston's initial violation of the code had all the impact, say, of a Perrier drought in La Jolla. From that point on, See's play consistently twisted every convention of the genre, and wonderfully well, filling the play with friendly little warps, deviations from the unexpected, comic turns and reversals — all governed by an irrepressible spirit of theatrical anarchy and geared to liberate the audience from whatever cozy anticipations it brought to the theater.

The cast, led by Hinkston, was solid all down the line. Every performer, hamming up his or her part just a sneeze away from pure farce, communicated above all else a distinct pleasure in doing the play. To this day 1 cannot recall who done it or what he/she did that set every-

silly, but it was my kind of silly. And as a result of having enjoyed the Rep's production of The Lady Cries Murder, it is difficult for me to regard any detective story in the old, venerable way. Now I expect Phillip Marlowe, or Humphrey Bogart, to discard his cigarette on some "mean street" and then light up another one immediately.

Another fragment comes to mind, in many ways the antithesis of the previous one. I can still remember too clearly Biff Wiff rowling out his throat and depositing its excess fluids behind the couch on the stage of the Marquis Public Theater during their production of Sam Shepard's grisly Buried Child. Where Hinkston's gesture set the tone for the See play, Wiff's discharge of phlegm did the same for Buried Child; once again we were a long way — let's hope — from Dorothy's beloved Kansas.

And given the themes of this play about American Gothic cruelty and nihilism — plus the dismal view of human nature it presents, with people having all the moral fortitude of squid — it would be fine with me if Mnemosyne, the Greek's personification of memory, would take time off and allow me to forget the brutal scenes of Buried Child: the unfeeling inhumanity', the meaningless lives, and the blind, self-indulgent sadism at the heart of every character in the play. But the Marquis Public Theater's production of Buried Child, under the excellent direction of Tavis Ross, was too powerful to be sealed away from memory. Ross and a superb cast created an atmosphere that was completely absorbing. They mirrored Shepard's ability to fill the theater with more than sufficient horror and, simultaneously, to suggest that what one saw was by no means — to employ a currently fashionable and tiresome expression — the "bottom line."

On the surface, where we did not remain for long. Buried Child was about two rainy days in the life of a Midwestern family (though the author suggested every now' and then that this was, in essence, the Family of Man). It concluded with the death ot Dodge, the patriarch of the clan, and with the rise of young Vince, who inherited the farm as well as the repulsive habits of his predecessor. During these two rainy days, an unscheduled family reunion took place, one that w’ould test the squirm-tolerance levels'of even the most jaded members of the audience.

All the performances in the production were excellent. The production, in fact, made the play. In particular. Biff Wiff's work as Dodge, the enemy of hope, still lingers in the mind — as do Bill Dunnam's efforts as Tilden, Dodge's younger son who had a few "troubles" in New Mexico. Rather than load his part with unnecessary dramatics — something the entire cast consistently refused to do — Dunnam played down his extremely disturbing character to the point that any subtle gesture became proper cause for sudden alarm, this latter being the overall effect the play had on me.

There is a phenomenon called "plastic memory," which is the ability of certain plastics, after being deformed, to resume their original shape when heated. Television and several of the plays I saw this year have the same effect on the mind. But both The Lady Cries Murder, a production that argues for total recall, and Buried Child, an argument for retrograde amnesia because the production was so convincing, were powerful enough not to allow the mind, as is the case with plastic memory, to leave the theater and return to its normal mode of seeing things. Both remain, each in its own way, among the most memorable productions I saw — and can see again any time someone discards a cigarette or, perish the thought, clears his throat.

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