nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 31, 2005
Wreckio Ensemble's new show Gravediggers is inspired by a commendable impulse, namely, a strong desire to "take action" against "the slow and painful disarming of our democracy" (their words, from a program note). But what they've created is both too dense and too oblique to really succeed as activist theatre; it's tough to rally an audience to action when they can't figure out what it is they're being asked to do. Filled with allusions to and reminders of a host of theatrical landmarks from the past sixty or seventy years—from Beckett and Brecht to Williams and Wilder, many of which are probably not intentional—Gravediggers finally feels mostly like a hodgepodge of influences congealing uncomfortably into an experimental plaything of a company still struggling to find its way. There may be some interesting work ahead for Wreckio, and there are certainly good intentions afoot now; but the product right now is very raw and unformed.
The play is sort-of in progress even as we are being seated. Against a surreal backdrop juxtaposing bleak terrain, piles of body parts, and a wondrous Godot-like tree sprouting a big red heart on one of its branches (there will be plenty more Beckett references to come), we see two gravediggers squabbling silently with one another. Their battle of wills sometimes takes the form of a shoving match, but most of the time is silent and immobile: a staring contest. When the lights go down and then back up again, and the play proper begins, the two are still at: it "'Tis" says one. "Not" says the other. Back and forth, for a long time.
It's a very great while before we understand that they're arguing about whether the red heart-like object in the tree has grown since the last time they looked at it. What we understand sooner is that they are a pair of cowards, a pair of followers in search of a leader, a pair of lost souls without the self-awareness that makes that condition interesting or bearable. Think Tweedledee and Tweedledum as Estragon and Vladimir. Their patter, which goes on much too long, unrelievedly, is hard to take.
Eventually, other characters emerge and things start to happen. First we meet the Corpse, the dead body of a soldier that the gravediggers were supposed to have buried but thus far have not. They use the Corpse as a kind of game piece, spinning it around so that it will point to one or the other of them, thus ending their quandary regarding which of them is "right." (The results are indecisive.) Next, much more interestingly, appear a Mother and her Son. Though he's full grown, he's in a baby carriage; it appears that she is going to shoot him. We infer that he's a draft dodger and they've agreed that it's better for him to die here than in the War.
The situation, and balance of power, then undergoes a number of shifts as the Mother decides to take the gravediggers hostage and take over their cave, which she plans to convert into a resort, even though there is no water anywhere around. The Son falls in love with the Corpse. Intergenerational conflict ensues. Finally, a Representative of the government turns up, at last providing fuel for the protest that we have been awaiting for about an hour. He prevaricates and doubletalks and manipulates all but the Son (and the Corpse, who is of course dead). A giant Phoenix turns up near the end.
The level of abstraction is always very high; there is barely a throughline to follow, what with the narrative threads shifting almost whimsically throughout; there's certainly not much in the way of cogent or persuasive discourse or argument proffered. Sure, we "get" that the Mother and then the Representative are stand-ins for red state Bushism, the Son is the questioning voice of reason, and the gravediggers are the silent majority; but we know that almost as soon as we see them. Alas, Gravediggers takes us nowhere deeper in the realm of political or social commentary; and worse, it takes about ninety minutes to not get there.
The visuals are striking, especially the set, which is designed by Dechelle Damien with art direction by Michael Mello. Costumes are strange and call attention to themselves. Karly Maurer's direction is as unfocused as her script (she's also the playwright); it was often difficult to tell where we were supposed to be looking, and the pacing is very slow indeed. Dimitra Bixby and Tara Grieco execute the rigorous physical movement required of them (as the Corpse and Phoenix, respectively) with skill, but the rest of the ensemble isn't assured enough to pull off the stylization that Maurer is going for. (I should note that Wreckio explains in the program that they've developed an acting technique called "Physical Realism" which I'm not sure I understand or even recognize from this performance; these folks aim high but they're still just nestlings.)
All in all, Gravediggers makes for a difficult sit. I will try to check in again with Wreckio Ensemble in a couple of years and see if and how they've progressed; as I've said they're ambitious and, I believe, sincere, and I wish them well in their efforts to develop an aesthetic that matters to them. They need to bear in mind that it should also matter—and be accessible—to audiences.