Richard Brinsley Sheridan learned the consequence of gesture earlier than most of us. At 21, he fought two duels with the same man over the same woman; having once spared his opponent’s life, he was skewered in their second duel and had his face pulped with the butt of a sword besides. At 24 he was able to say, with conviction, “Conscience has no more to do with gallantry than it has with politics.”
Great literature nicely illustrates the principle that experience is our only real teacher. 300 years on, Sheridan’s satires speak truth to power almost as well as they ever did, but we do not learn by recognition. Liars lie and still they are believed. Despite Sheridan’s alarms, Thomas Mann’s, Sinclair Lewis’s, Chaplin’s, Orwell’s, the most blatant monsters still get enthroned. Art only gets us so far. A writer may demand the king’s head all he likes, but to get anything done he must convince Dr. Guillotin to endorse the scaffold.
Since the late-middle twentieth century, Mac Wellman has been straining Sheridan’s punch of social comment and silly babble through an existential filter. Like Sartre’s more than Sheridan’s, Wellman’s characters are mostly symbolic, their exertions a barely opaque manifestation of theme. This kind of absurdity asks a lot of a production. Wellman’s latest play, The Offending Gesture, requires an all-woman cast to play European men, anthropomorphized dogs, and troubadour cats who live on the moon. As gestures go, such a casting mandate is mildly interesting – a little theatrical, a little political. And the opening tableau of Edgar Landa’s new production promises good old-fashioned Wellmania: a Greek chorus of animal-people upstage, a master-servant relationship down left, and a sign pointing to the toilet backstage. It is the production’s final coherent gesture, offensive or otherwise.
Like a linguistic air-raid siren, the text screeches of the perfidy men hide within words. Marginally the tale of a foreign dog who outraged the Third Reich by learning to seig heil, the play stretches a forepaw through time to point out that the Nazi plan to invade the middle east was finally achieved by American Republicans. It is easy to characterize such a message as obvious and unpunctual, given its 2016 off-Broadway premiere. But story, plot, history, even politics, are not Wellman’s real interests; he likes games. And if you like allegorical malaprop/agitprop talk-romps, this is one. It’s got more puns than a Sheridan comedy, and twice as many repetitions-for-effect.
The Offending Gesture is as much about the moral nature of metaphor and euphemism, and the relationship of semantics to virtue, as it is about how followers love a leader who loves to lead. It’s also about indulging the righteous subversion of casting a woman as Hitler. It’s about a lot of things, this play, and it’s not very long. But to not feel very long, a manic script demands a focused production.
It is risky to mock fascists when you can’t run your own train on time. The play might be more effective at 60 or 80 minutes than 70, but Landa’s staging rushes moments only to drop cues, the tempo a monotonous languor. And with a couple of striking exceptions, the cast is unready for the performance style. Along with the untutored dialects, soft character choices and undisciplined physicality, some actors seem baffled by their words and unclear on the meaning or execution of their gestures. It’s hard to watch. Opening night, in every chorus-song, at least one member of the four-part harmony went flat, sometimes two. For half an hour I thought it might be on purpose, that the production was illustrating a theme around half-assed gestures.
But it’s probably just a difference of taste. In the program notes, Edgar Landa describes the play as puzzling. When a director is disposed to let everything I want from a show remain a mystery, I am likely to blame for not appreciating the gesture. What remains of relevance, though, in a text that compares George Bush to Adolf Hitler long after both have left the stage?
photos by Son of Semele and Meg Cunningham
The Offending Gesture
Son of Semele Ensemble
Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd. (@ Hoover)
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 5; Mondays 3/27 & 4/3 at 7
ends on April 9. 2017
for tickets, visit SOSE