A DISCOURAGING WORD
nytheatre.com review by Terri Galvin
If brevity is the soul of wit, then surely recognition is at the heart
of political satire. Observational riffs are only as mordant as their
subject is topical and—in this post-modern era—media-saturated. Happily,
there is plenty to recognize in The Compound Eye's clever, incisive
production of A Discouraging Word.
August 15, 2003
Bill Graves is the governor of Kansas who, through a series of Jesuitical moral manipulations that would render Henry V proud, concludes that his state's God-given right to an ocean has been denied long enough. The convenient solution to this heinous injustice? Why, annexing a coastal state, of course. Dismissing several potential candidates as "too big," "too swampy," and having "too many militia men," Graves and his lackeys quickly settle on seemingly vulnerable New Hampshire, and the war-justifying spin-machine grinds imperialistically into gear.
Yet Kansas state government is not all manifest destiny and sweeping rhetorical flourish. Playwright-director Johanna Linsley also offers us bleak glimpses into the soulless, bureaucratic micro-management of the aptly named "Department of Everything." While not as boisterous a romp through "Capitol Steps" territory as the escalating military drama, these scenes provide a thoughtful, trenchant depth as two beleaguered civil servants struggle with existential issues of fulfillment, identity, and the essential nature of the human condition. Not the subject of current headlines, alas, but perhaps even more heartbreakingly relevant in today's radically altered world.
The symbolism of these two story-lines can be heavy-handed at times, but the parody seldom descends into caricature. If pre-emptive interstate invasion is perhaps too obvious a metaphor for recent international events, the callow boy scouts who constitute the "troops" are a provocative, poignant, yet no less hilarious balance. Admittedly, the script would benefit from selective pruning, but Linsley's crisp direction and her talented cast navigate the comic excesses and philosophical subtleties with equal aplomb.
The result is an exuberant, witty production exploring the power and, conversely, the limitations of language. What's ultimately more "discouraging": the ease with which charismatic rhetoric can mobilize the bovine masses, or an individual's private effort to define absolute meaning in an environment which cruelly mocks the attempt? So long as The Compound Eye continues in this vein, I suspect such questions will remain both eminently topical and keenly depicted.