nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
March 24, 2006
After the performance I saw of Fragment at Classic Stage Company ended, a man in the row ahead of me uttered, “Well, that would have been better as an acting exercise: Creating something out of nothing.”
By “nothing” he meant no given character or narrative, and none is be found in Fragment’s text, assembled by director Pavol Liska and collaborator Kelly Copper from the lost works of the ancient Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides. Seven plays of Sophocles exist in their entirety today, out of 120 written. We have 19 of Euripides’s plays, out of 90. Fragments of these playwright’s lost bodies of work are the only evidence of the full dramatic texts that once were, and they offer few clues about the plots and characters they helped form. And yet, they speak on philosophies that are hardly alien to us.
Not even the entire sky would suffice
Were writing down men’s sins
Nor he himself to examine them and send punishment to each.
There are no Gods in heaven.
There are not.
There are not…
Liska and Copper have attempted to string together a number of these sagacious nuggets into an hour-and-fifteen minute, three-character evening. Two men and a woman (Zachary Oberzan, Tony Torn, and Juliana Francis) are at a wine-and-cheese party with us, decked out in business casual clothes. There is some light music. They begin to talk about the nature of man, but because their lines are coming from different plays, they are not having a dialogue so much as a speech contest. When they are not speaking to each other or us, they often take seats in the house, which is arranged in an alley stage style, similar to a joust, with audience on two sides of an elongated playing area. When the actors stand to declaim from one side or the other, it is not unlike British Parliament minus the wit.
Liska has given considerable effort to staging events that segment the evening (i.e., characters deciding to dance, flip the food table over, cry, etc.), and all three actors connect with their text in compelling and rooted performances, especially Torn, who brings an immeasurably valuable goofiness to an otherwise down-faced evening. But the piece seems to be running on fumes by the end. Though the running time is only slightly over an hour, certain speeches get repeated, and my attention began to wane as arbitrary directorial choices seemed to attempt distraction from the fact that there is not enough tension, conflict, or character in the text for a full-length performance. The party “business” cries out for a textual narrative that creates stakes high enough to care about, and the speeches beg for context once one begins to follow the other like a hit parade of lugubrious poetry on all aspects of the human condition.
The characters need clearer relationships to one another, or given circumstances that are more sharply drawn. The status difference between them is never consistent or closely examined. An uncertain fear about the times bonds them, as it does us all, but their expression of vulnerability is shackled by the non-sequitur nature of the dialogue, which presents a tricky problem. The text of Fragment does not dwell on any one topic for long, because there isn’t enough text on any one topic to support that. Contemporary conversation at a party is similarly tangential, but the flow is smoother because eloquence isn’t prioritized—not so with these ancient texts and their zeal for profundity. Fragment is rarely able to establish momentum because its topical weightiness—war, wealth, marriage, religion, etc.—requires more textual dexterity from the speeches if they are to blend into one another. Instead the characters are forced to switch gears often, rhetorically slamming the brakes down on topics with grave proclamations, and lurching forward with a new subject upon the next word.
In the end, my fellow audience member’s keen observation about acting exercises vs. productions speaks to the best part of the evening, the cast. If Fragment were in the hands of less intelligent and capable performers, it is easy to imagine that same gentleman leaving in a far worse mood, having gotten not much meaning at all from the scant text. The actors find the emotional core of each fragment, and convey it to the audience with accessible humanity. The piece’s text as a whole, however, does not give them enough to build toward, and we are left with an excellently recited series of monologues. When one ends, there is no mystery about what is coming next, but only drab certainty that it will be another speech. That may satisfy a recital audience, but theatre audiences like the one I was in will leave restless, having wished for more.