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Shaky Landing 

The Shotgun Players' third Approach still hasn't got it quite right

Wednesday, Oct 10 2001
In one of his novels, I think it's The Tin Drum, Günter Grass takes a wry swipe at the writers of modish European minimalism who lined up behind Beckett after the Second World War to strip their stories of definite setting and time. They posed shadow-characters against a vaguely wasted cosmic background, and (accuses Grass) cried victory over the problems of timelessness and universality. In Approach, playwright Susan Wiegand poses four nameless characters -- Woman, Man, Boy, and Girl -- against a dreamlike netherworld and navigates them through familiar motions of love and pain. "I made it as easy as I could," she writes in a director's note, "removing the baggage and burdens of histories and place, money and position, families, time, age. I granted them an Eden where there are no jobs transferring lovers to opposite sides of the planet. Where no one was ever anyone's best friend's wife." The odd result is a kind of Waiting for Godot populated by love-struck, middle-class Americans.

Boy, in the first scene, meets Girl. He offers her his coat; they miscommunicate, and soon Girl goes away. This sets the tone for Boy's relationship with Girl (and incidentally traces the pattern of most of my failed relationships). Girl keeps asking, "Are you the One?" and then decides he's not. Boy says, "Who on earth taught you there was a One and that you should find him?" Girl doesn't listen. She settles on the rich, established Man as the One -- although she's not in love -- and Woman, in a tan turtleneck and slacks, finds this arrangement disgusting. She offers comfort to the heartbroken Boy, who naturally turns to Woman for solace.

The outlines of Approach aren't bad. They reduce relationships to familiar archetypes, but the cast still finds room in each character to make the story almost engaging. Marin Van Young plays a fervid, batty, insistent, vague, and disingenuous Girl, which seems to be the right idea; Mary Eaton Fairfield is effective as a worried, maternal, suburban Woman, carefully enunciating everything she says. Aaron Lucich's Man is appropriately balding, harried, and snippy, threatened by both Girl's flirtatiousness and Boy's outraged jealousy. And Brent Rosenbaum is well cast as the callow, love-confused Boy, with his dark eyebrows and romantic curly hair.

The trouble lies in the script, which may not be minimalist enough. After Wiegand sets up the rules of her universal netherworld, she spends 90 minutes working things out, which is about 30 minutes too long. The characters run into particular, personal problems that never find real articulation. Woman and Man, for example, argue vaguely about their strained relationship:

Woman: What is going on? It feels like front-row seats at a Stravinsky concert! What's wrong?

Man: Nothing.

Woman: I don't believe you.

Man: Why are you crying?

Woman: I don't know.

One scene like this would be enough. Three or four is too many. The characters always speak at a distance -- from their own feelings and from each other -- and although we know it's meant to be stylized and symbolic, the dialogue is too unpolished to serve as a sharp, evocative fugue. Even worse, the characters won't shut up about a scorpion-and-frog parable that's meant to stand for men vis- à-vis women. A frog (woman) ferries a scorpion (man) across the river. The scorpion promises not to sting, but can't resist doing so in deep midstream; the frog dies, asking, "Why'd you do that?" Scorpion [drowning]: "Because I'm a scorpion!" One telling of the story is more than enough, but when Boy gives an exhaustive, comp. lit. exegesis of it halfway through the show, a severe urge rises to throw something at his head.

The Shotgun Players have staged Approach twice before; they, and Wiegand, keep trying to get it right. Katie Bales Frassinelli does what she can as director, but the script lacks dramatic tension, and although it should move like music, it hasn't been well paced, verbally or physically. The basic idea reminds me of a comic strip by Edward Gorey that was brilliantly adapted as a play for the ART in Cambridge years ago. The Inanimate Tragedy has a cast of little things you might find in your desk -- needles, a marble, some knotted string. Each panel tells an incomplete fragment of a melodrama: "Almost at once," reads one caption, "the No. 37 Penpoint returned to the Featureless Expanse." Or "The Two-Holed Button concealed its apprehension." And then: "Quickly the Knotted String decided to wait on events," and "The Glass Marble regretted its actions." Wiegand needs to realize that her characters strike funny, overfamiliar poses, and until she disciplines them like a poet they'll be no livelier than buttons or string.


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