nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
January 13, 2006
Language may be an imperfect tool of expression, but as a society we take it for granted that it will function properly in our everyday lives. We rely on it and forget about it, until such a time—perhaps in a foreign country—when you find yourself unable to communicate efficiently with someone because one or both of you do not speak each other's language well enough to be clear and fluid at the same time. But what if that was the way you talked to people in your everyday life, including those closest to you?
Peninsula, written and directed by Madelyn Kent under the development program of Soho Rep, creates a world where language does not function quite properly. The play begins with a husband and wife sharing a private moment together—a private moment infused with an uncomfortable feeling of detachment that manifests itself in a marked difficulty with speaking the same language. But while Peninsula begins as an eccentrically stylized meditation on the difficulties of communication and intimacy between a married couple, we soon realize it is attempting far more. The husband and wife soon split up for the day and it quickly becomes apparent that everyone in this world speaks the same way—revealing a language dysfunction that cuts across an entire society.
Welcome to life on the Peninsula, which in many ways seems rather removed from the society in which we live. A drab and apparently homogeneous culture, a mercantile economy devoid of slick and sophisticated advertising, and a police-state fighting what appears to be a populist insurgency all seem more reminiscent of a former Soviet-bloc country or a Latin American dictatorship than a modern society that is becoming globally interconnected and culturally cosmopolitan. But while it is perhaps true that more and more we are watching the same movies, drinking the same soft drinks, and competing for the same jobs, one can also make the case that we are becoming more provincial and insular, retreating into gated communities, splintering religious affiliations, and ideologically homogeneous interest groups. In this sense the Peninsula is as much a frame of mind as a geographical location, showing a possible evolutionary result of an inward-looking and self-sequestered society whose inhabitants are intellectually and emotionally detached both from each other and from an increasingly threatening outside world.
This detachment is eerily manifested in the broken English that is utilized throughout the play, and it is this linguistic choice that is the stylistic centerpiece of Peninsula. Words are used incorrectly, tenses are mangled, the forms of words are confused, and sentence structures are scrambled as we follow the wife through a secret life of sexual encounters with shopkeepers and priests, and her husband as he wrestles with his present social position and a yearning to return to his past. Kent apparently formed this aesthetic by writing Peninsula in Spanish—a language she is not fully fluent in—and then having her piece translated back into English, with all of her grammatical errors still intact. How she makes this approach theatrical is through a stark performance technique based on Japanese Butoh dance, creating a series of haltingly deliberate one-on-one interactions. These interactions, handled with wonderful skill by Peninsula’s uniformly excellent cast, are captivating and often poetic, resulting in a meditation on both the nature of language and the ineffable essence of the interactions themselves.
It also results in a world that struck me as almost despairingly grim, which is in large part due to the linguistic processing system that Kent has fed her script through. When two people who normally speak different languages try to communicate, there is the expectation that those people will eventually get better at it. But the society presented in Peninsula is basically a closed system where the communication breakdowns are not between cultures but within one, so the sense is one of a society that is not on the verge of breaking through to a new way of communicating—either verbally or nonverbally—but rather degenerating in its ability to do so. Characters do make changes in their lives, but because Kent’s linguistic machinery is so unyieldingly pervasive throughout every facet of the world she has created—including even members of the shadowy opposition—one gets little sense that transformative change in the social fabric is possible. The revolutionary group that threatens society seems like just an alternative program in a world whose operating system is irretrievably damaged.
If Peninsula suffers from anything, it is perhaps too much raw technique in the mix. In many ways Kent seems content to let her method dictate the show through what are seemingly random linguistic errors, and I found myself wishing at times she would more consciously and actively use her techniques as tools for exploring the compelling themes and questions that her piece poses. Nevertheless, Peninsula is one of the more intriguing theatrical discoveries I’ve happened across in a while, and credit must also be given to Soho Rep for the fantastic production it has mounted to support her work. In addition to a focused and talented group of actors (Louis Cancelmi, David Chandler, Tim Cummings, Curzon Dobell, and Marielle Heller, all of whom handle Kent’s style and techniques with both skill and grace), a first-rate design team has also been assembled. Theresa Squire’s costumes and Matt Frey’s stark lighting do much to set the mood, and even more striking are Narelle Sisson’s endlessly inventive set and Kenta Nagai’s stunningly effective sound design. The writing, directing, performances, and design are brought together beautifully, making Peninsula exciting in the theatrical possibilities it offers, the thoughts it provokes, and the experience it creates.