The Impotent General
nytheatre.com review by Terri Galvin
June 16, 2006
Okay, so let's talk "The Emperor's New Clothes." Wherein said Emperor falls prey to unscrupulous tailors and winds up with a royal suit more birthday than ermine? As cautionary tales go, this one's moral is kind of tough to miss: insecurity and conformity (bad) versus unspoiled, childlike courage—e.g., "He's naked!"—(good). But is it really that simple?
Isn't insecurity (partially) redeemed by an element of humility? Admitting—if only to yourself—that you can't see cloth visible only to the "wise" is not only recognition of the (rather wondrous) possibility that such a cloth could actually exist (wow!), but also a sobering concession that you lack the wherewithal to perceive it (bummer). You're not in the Cloth-Seeing-Club, and, lord knows, you really wanted card-carrying membership—not only to be deemed "wise," but also to see something magical and splendid, to boot.
So I suppose the Emperor's (and his subjects') main foible must be hypocrisy: denying the "naked" truth. And the innocent child is extolled for revealing what the rest of the herd is too cowardly to admit. Right?
Well perhaps a child's innocence is reliable when it comes to wardrobe malfunctions, but what about art? When he adorably proclaims "naked!" about Wagner or Picasso, mightn't we be less inclined to elevate this honesty to the status of "truth?" Just because he can't discern something magical and splendid in, say, Botticelli, doesn't mean it's not there.
What if, when it comes to art, (and apologies to Ms. Stein) there is a "there" there—only it's not as obvious as a naked monarch parading through town with royal court in tow?
Such musings have been plaguing me since seeing Gary Winter's The Impotent General. More specifically: suppose some magical, splendid theatrical cloth does, indeed, exist, but I simply cannot see it?
In Winter's play, for example, I'm uncertain if the Pocahontas poetry fest in the opening scene is satirizing 1) self-righteous, morally superior performance artists, 2) self-indulgent, irony-free slammers in appallingly bad tee-shirts, and/or 3) the base vulgarity of modern retail transactions.
Or, alternatively, it might just be the sleep-deprived, stream-of-consciousness drone of club kids on ecstasy.
And the subsequent dialogue concerning what constitutes art, why society attaches a "price tag to everything," and how we alter identity by "improving" our appearance? Not only am I unsure how it relates to the previous sequence, but I'm still puzzled over why it's delivered in voiceover while the audience stares at two sets of exceedingly well-lit dentures.
And the characters of Jane and Bernice, discussing the relative merits of "serious" versus "commercial" theatre? Surely there's some substantive thematic content here, but I was just a tad distracted by these elderly Jewish ladies' being portrayed as male construction workers with Russian and Irish accents.
And when the play concluded with two sock puppets, telling dueling sagas of Pocahontas (again) and aspiring actress Susie Dawn, I was too preoccupied by the ersatz-Sesame Street self-consciousness to even care much about the relentless moralizing.
All of which seemed really quite a shame to me, given the gutsy, committed performances of the three-member cast, and Meredith McDonough's inventive, game-for-anything direction.
So, did I leap up during curtain call and bravely bellow "NAKED!!!!"? Alas, I refrained. And not only out of compassion for the actors, nor from any longing to be part of The Club, but from, surprisingly enough, a seldom exercised sense of humility.