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Philip Kan Gotanda's new play is hard to swallow 

Wednesday, Oct 14 2009
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Redrum Burger in Davis has built up quite a reputation since it opened in 1986. Locals identify the fast food joint by its humongous one-pounder patties, heavily tattooed employees, and a heart-stoppingly breaded and deep-fried menu item known as ZOOM! (Zucchini OniOn rings and Mushrooms). The establishment caused a bit of controversy in the late 1990s when residents retaliated against its original name — Murder Burger — and slogan ("So good they're to die for"). Owner Jim Edlund launched a competition to find a new moniker for his restaurant, which was won by Shaun Curtis of Cupertino in 2001 with the novel idea of simply spelling "murder" backwards à la The Shining. Curtis' prize was $1,000 and a meal a day for life. According to the community Web site Davis Wiki, semifinalist suggestions included Patty Shack, Mr. Goodburger, Grill & Chill, Moo-der Burger, and Bird-o-Burger (a reference, no doubt, to the ostrich burger special). People from six states, Canada, and Mexico entered the contest. There's been talk of the outlet reverting to its original name. Progress on this front remains unclear: The sign above the restaurant still reads Redrum.

All of the above has very little to do with Philip Kan Gotanda's new play, #5 Angry Red Drum, receiving its world premiere at the Thick House under the auspices of the Asian American Theater Company. Well, that isn't strictly true. Gotanda writes in the program notes that the aforementioned eatery inspired the title for his drama about two tramps trying to patch together an existence on the margins of a dystopian wasteland. "I liked the way Red Drum sounded," he says.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with Gotanda's play (and the rationale behind the opening paragraph to this review): Redrum is one thing, Red Drum is another, and the mental distance you have to travel to fathom the thought processes connecting these random ideas is a great deal further than most people are willing to go, even for an order of ZOOM! Despite some entertaining and thoughtful moments and director Matthew Graham Smith's vivid-rhythmic mise-en-scène, #5 Angry Red Drum is ultimately too cryptic for anyone existing outside the dramatist's brain to decode.

I'm not the sort of theatergoer who believes that a playwright needs to spell everything out. Far from it — there should always be a sandbox in which the dramatist and the audience can battle for meaning. On the other hand, when a playwright gives the impression that he has flung a bunch of weighty-seeming intellectual concepts at a wall and taken a step back to see what's stuck, we have an issue. To my mind, this isn't canny postmodernism in the Eugène Ionesco or Suzan-Lori Parks mold. It's simply lazy dramaturgy.

In #5 Angry Red Drum, Gotanda literally invites the audience for a tussle in a sandbox. The play takes place on a sandy landscape scattered with debris, including a traffic cone, shards of bent metal pipe — and a big red drum. Over the course of 90 minutes, we join lowlifes Goram (Anthony Julius Williams) and Pick (Will Dao) on a journey of self-discovery and community building. As the tatty-looking wide-eyed men-boys negotiate their delicate love-hate relationship through a series of games played in the sand to the thumps and bumps of a soundscape provided by percussionist Daniel Bruno, the shadows of war and death loom over their nascent world.

The sand provides a beautiful canvas for choreography, costume, and lighting effects. When Goram and Pick turn against each other, one draws an emphatic line in the sand to prevent the other from crossing into his domain. The sand coats the tramps' shabby suits with an extra layer of grime, making them look like creatures destined for dust. And Cathie Anderson's fierce orange and red lights appear particularly apocalyptic when projected on the gritty ground.

It's too bad that from a dramaturgical standpoint, the sand gets in our eyes. According to the program notes, Gotanda penned the play in 2007 and 2008 in response to his "acute frustration and borderline despair with the latter Bush-Cheney years." Perhaps if he'd given himself more time to gain perspective on this period of American history, he could have created a work of greater coherence. As it is, we are treated to a mishmash of high- and low-cultural references and heavy-handed symbols that don't seem to add up to much. The play leans heavily on Waiting for Godot. Goram and Pick mirror Vladimir and Estragon; they even enjoy a game with a hat, as do their forebears in Beckett's chef d'oeuvre. Two peripheral characters, Truman and Backwards Soldier, recall Beckett's Lucky and Pozzo. As in Godot, where Pozzo enters dragging Lucky on a long leash, so Backwards Soldier hauls in Truman, his slave. Beckett wrote his play in the wake of WWII. But beyond the war connection, its relevance to Gotanda's meditation on the Bush-Cheney years is unclear.

Gotanda fills his play with many more heady but insubstantial references and symbols. Warring biblical brothers Cain and Abel make a symbolic appearance in the relationship between the protagonists. Two minor characters dressed in red, white, and blue — the Cigarette Girl and Little Red Drummer Boy — represent in an over-the-top way the loss of the American Dream. Half-remembered lines from classic Bob Dylan songs suggest the demise of 1960s revolutionary ideals. But besides providing moments of light comedy, there seems little reason for altering the famous lyric "The answer my friend ..." to "The ants are my friends."

Word games are fun. Some of them, like flipping the name of a burger joint to satisfy complaints while insidiously poking fun at the complainers, are even clever. But Gotanda's use of wordplay seems to serve no purpose other than to make a general statement about the absurdity of life. Ironically, I suspect that sinking your teeth into an ostrich burger with a side order of ZOOM! might reveal more about the state of the human condition than watching Gotanda's drama.

Editor's note: Chloe Veltman saw this play in preview.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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