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Paying for It 

Fury, injustice, humiliation — and humor — in Campo Santo's four-story program

Wednesday, Apr 26 2006
The final scene in Denis Johnson's play Soul of a Whore featured a man in a clown suit hanging from a cross. In Haze, a new stage production woven together by Campo Santo from the letters, short stories, and novel excerpts of four authors, including Johnson, the man with the red nose and big, floppy shoes — fittingly for an Easter weekend world premiere — appears to have risen again.

The narratives that make up Haze are all very different. In "What Happens When These Things Happen," based on the opening chapter of Vendela Vida's novel And Now You Can Go, a woman describes being held up at gunpoint in New York's Riverside Park. Dave Eggers' short story "Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance" centers on a man's drive from San Jose to Bakersfield to visit his suicidal cousin in the hospital. Junot Diaz's tale "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars" tells of a philandering young Dominican's attempt to keep his relationship from falling apart. And in "The Starlight on Idaho," taken from a collection of letters by Johnson due to appear in Playboy magazine later this year, a recovering drug addict struggles to make sense of his life. Yet despite major contrasts in theme and tone, the four narratives are underscored by the same worldview: There's something out there — some higher power — enjoying a cruel laugh at the expense of humanity.

Not that any of the characters in these four stark narratives deserves to live life as the butt of some universal joke. Vida's female protagonist sustains long-term emotional scars from her ordeal with a gun-toting madman; Eggers' main character, Fish, is at the mercy of his cousin Adam's multiple suicide attempts. Even Mark Cassandra, the raving ex-junkie in Johnson's story, and Diaz's Dominican Don Juan, Yunior, serve self-imposed sentences far in excess of their crimes. This sense of victimization, of karmic comeuppance, is right there in the play's main refrain: "I knew I had done things I would have to pay for."

For all that, Haze doesn't sprawl in self-pity. Fury, injustice, and humiliation — spliced with gritty humor — are the core emotions here. The play is more or less a series of exaggerated rants against the great unknown. It would be reminiscent of a wolf howling at the moon or a desperate prisoner yanking at the bars of his cage but for the fact that director Sean San Jose and his cast of four temper the raving with steely and understated precision.

The collaborators' sharp technique of divorcing their onstage actions from the words in the text undercuts the emotion of the scenes while compounding their intensity. Instead of physically performing bits of narrative, as is so often the case with prose-based plays (Word for Word's recent production of Daniel Handler's Four Adverbs is a case in point), the actors resist doing what the language tells them to do. For example, in "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," Yunior (Donald Lacy) doesn't touch his girlfriend, Magdalena (Anna Maria Luera), even though the line "I just sat down next to her, grabbed her flailing arms" dictates otherwise. And in "What Happens When These Things Happen," a scene in which the assailant (Lacy) holds a gun to the head of the protagonist (Luera) as they sit together on a park bench is played out while the actors stand 10 feet away from each other. There's no prop gun or bench in sight. The power of the production depends on the cast members' skill in maintaining the tension without resorting to physical contact. So controlled were the performances the night I attended that someone sitting in front of me yelped when Lacy's sinister character announced, "I don't want to die alone."

If Haze loses any of its snarling poise, it's when the self-consciousness of the writing undermines the dramaturgy. There's something eccentric and comically delusional about Danny Wolohan's performance as the fuming Fish in Eggers' story, but when Wolohan delivers Cassandra's rambling letters to Satan, Johnson's maniacal, overbearing clauses seem to drown out the character. Even familiarity with the Cassandra clan from Johnson's previous plays — Hellhound on my Trail, Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into Flames, and Soul of a Whore —doesn't clarify the raving. At this point, Haze stops being drama: It's just a crazed rant. "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars" illustrates a different problem. While the other narratives derive much of their tension from scenes that occur in the present, Diaz's story takes place almost entirely in the past, and as a result never delivers the same punch.

"Haze" is usually used as a noun, defined as a confused state of mind or an atmospheric vapor that reduces visibility. Both definitions are in play here. The characters melt in and out of the shadows on an almost bare stage lit with hard rectangles of yellow light from four hanging funnels that resemble rusty air-conditioning ducts. It could be a forgotten basement. It might be purgatory. Either way, Joshua McDermott's lights and set suggest the darkling fringes of civilization, a place where rejected souls grapple with their overcast pasts and equally gloomy futures. Stumbling about in the fading light against a backdrop of looping video projections and sound projections, hypnotic in their repetitiveness, the characters make the same mistakes and repeat the same behaviors over and over again, with apparently little idea about how to climb out of their basement-hells to freedom.

But it's equally one other definition of "haze" — the verb meaning to persecute or harass with meaningless, difficult, or humiliating tasks — to which this production relates. A warped, semiagnostic version of divine retribution bubbles just below the surface of Haze, conspiring to turn all humanity into dangling clowns.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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