Port City Playhouse Someone Who’ll Watch Over MeBy Genie Baskir • Apr 24th, 2012 • Category: Backstage, News
Port City Playhouse
The Lab at Convergence, Alexandria, VA
Through May 5th
$18/$16 Seniors and Juniors
There are those who claim to know just what is the world’s oldest profession. Opinions on this may, and should, differ depending on if one’s outlook is moral or historical. For the sake of this essay let us pretend that our outlook is historical and establish, for these purposes, that the world’s oldest profession is theatre and its sub genres of storytelling and illustration.
From the Mousterian burial rituals of the Neanderthal and the Solutrean pictoglyphs on European cave walls to Homer’s epic poems in near antiquity, humankind has insisted on telling its story and leaving its memoirs and testimony to posterity. For 2600 years Homer was a fabulist until contemporaneous science discovered that his narratives had more than a little basis in truth. The same for Flavius Josephus and his memoirs and testimony of the earliest years of the Common Era. Thus art and science are not mutually exclusive. They are bound together confirming that Theatre and its dependents, memoir and testimony, are as old as the earliest of Humankind; from pictoglyph to hieroglyph and cuneiform to the ancient and modern stages we understand today.
We are addicted to stories and the story tellers. First person testimonies captivate us and lead us to question ourselves and what we would do and how we would experience an author’s life events. From the communal safety of a seat we can survive a Holocaust or have multiple spouses or lose a child. Or we can laugh until we hurt and sing classic songs until we’re hoarse in our throats. Humankind does not abandon its stories no matter the medium.
Port City Playhouse (PCP) in Alexandria, Virginia takes its historical (writer’s presumption) mission to heart as it prepares its seasonal programs every year. For 35 years PCP has challenged the prevailing requisite of presenting tried and true lucrative plays and presented new and difficult works for a loyal audience willing to be uncomfortable and challenged in its comforts. Such an endeavor is the currently running Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness.
As Holocaust testimony and memoir fade into lore, our new challenge emerges in the first person survival stories of hostages and terrorism. Who are these survivors and what do they have to give us other than their own catharsis and purging their respective psyches of their personal Hells?
Terry Anderson, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy, respectively American, Irish and English, spent years together as hostages of Islamist Jihadists in Beirut, Lebanon. Their testimonies form the basis of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. Director Rosemary Hartman took this study of contemporary human survival and built a narrative of true human terror borne by ordinary men. Adam (David James), Edward (Matt Randall) and Michael (John Shackleford) are not professional warriors. They are not war contractors or mercenaries trained in the art of war. They are not spies or agents of governments. They are useless pawns in the clutches of clueless fanatics who have embarked on a folly from which they too (the fanatics) cannot extricate themselves. Thus their captives are forced into a cell with 24 hour light. These captives wear only the most basic of dirty, rag like garments, sleep on dirty bed rolls on a dirt floor and they are always in chains. However, the food is not bad and there is a proper toilet, although the men are forced to engage in this most private and personal of human functions chained to a captor. Hartman instructs her actors to live in the moment of their situation and to establish the most fearsome reality she can muster and that is the loss of the sense of time. In this case, a Director must work from empathy and get her actors to feel what she is feeling in order to present her vision of a very challenging story. Audiences want to be entertained, but Hartman is not entertaining them; she is forcing the audience to feel and empathize in her path to opening night. Subsequent audiences will not be any less uncomfortable.
All of this does not happen in a vacuum. Hartman and her producer, Donna Reynolds, have engaged set, light, sound and costume designers to put the actors into context. While acting rehearsals were proceeding at a separate location, a battery of designers and crew were building and assembling the context in which the actors could convey their stories to the audience. Erin Cumbo’s set painting is a study in worst nightmare scenario and the visual metaphor of terror is delivered to the audience before the lights go down and the actors take the stage. All three actors are men who do not run from displaying true and devastating emotion. They are not stoics…not in these circumstances. They may be in chains, but they are nevertheless free and enjoy the panoply of emotions culturally denied their captors. Maybe that is why they were singled out for abduction and disappearance.
How are we, as an American audience, to withstand the knowledge that we are valued, but we are not loved? How do we as an audience accept this play as opposed to an Irish or an English audience? Rosemary Hartman brings us the American story of redemption and triumph of spirit amid the foul and dank reality of what three men actually survived. This is a personal story. There is no larger concept or all encompassing world event proceeding parallel to the events here. These men’s countrymen and maybe even their kinsmen are proceeding with their usual lives as the men wonder if anyone knows about them and their tragedy. In fact, when Michael appears in the cell, the first thing Adam and Edward want to know from him is if anyone is looking for them. Does anyone know that they are hostages? Michael can only, in his own bewilderment, give them a dopey look and noncommittal answer. He himself arrives in Lebanon having only an incredulous warning of the situation and not believing such a thing could happen to him. While still on the outside, Michael, himself, never had a thought of the disappeared. He was, in his own self-importance, merely going out for ingredients to finish making dessert.
Thus, we go to see such a play and we must give thought to our disappeared. Theatre comes at us through the mists of farthest antiquity and forces us to face our own histories today. That, in itself, reflects the nobleness of our histories and our own obligations to the future.
Photos by Mike deBlois
Disclaimer: Port City Playhouse allowed ShowBizRadio to attend rehearsals and talk with the cast and designers about the production.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/7918.
Genie Baskir is a theatrical producer. She worked in radio production and direction for many years and gravitated to theatre when family members became involved with the stage.