IT WAS The Hand of God that pushed me over the edge. Written and performed by a "licensed spiritual therapist," this variety show about childhood sexual abuse limped across the Illusion Theater stage this February with a dramatic range from bathos to banality. This show constituted a one-woman scorched-earth campaign against a theater of aesthetics and ideas, and reviewing it marked the transgression of a personal boundary--the last mile marker on a steep descent from cynicism to callousness. For once I had panned a show on childhood sexual abuse, there could be no going back.
Yet back I go, this time for the Illusion Theater's multimedia musical on the scourge of breast cancer, For Our Daughters. The stars of this show appear in a projected, 90-minute video: 11 Minnesota women, joined by friends and family, discussing their encounters with cancer. It almost goes without saying that they represent a carefully-chosen diversity of age, race, religion and affectional preference. Joining them is a cast of three--mother, daughter and grandfather--who act and sing their way through a mammary incident, from diagnosis of the tumor to its removal. The less said about all this the better. Our narrator is a fictional R.N., Jeanine, who lectures the assembled with practically no pretense to dramatic character. Over the course of the evening, Jeanine will tell us to "move from anger to action." Jeanine will tell us to form a support group. Jeanine will tell us, in song, that "it takes the time it takes." As created by Bonnie Morris, Kim Hines and Michael Robins, For Our Daughters is, at its core, an after-school special for adults, and not a very good one.
Before we go any further, let me make one thing clear: I am opposed to death, passionately and unequivocally. I am against growths, malignant and benign, in the particular and the abstract. More specifically, I abhor tumors that by cellular design, divide or multiply within the breast or breast area. Michael Tortorello does not coddle cancer. That said, I do not have enough thumbs to give this prolonged public service announcement the Siskel and Ebert treatment it so rigorously pursues. Underscored with piano from the George Winston Institute of Ivory Tinkling, the lyrics shamelessly wring platitudes from real pathos. "Moving in silence/ Needing, healing/Hold on to hope," begins the first song. The cast later sing in unison: "Our stories touch many lives," and teach us that "every journey starts with just a single step." Swallow two of these bromides with a swig of store-brand choreography and call me in the morning.
To the extent that For Our Daughters is composed of first-person survival stories, the production inoculates itself against any brand of critical engagement--save the kind of puff-piece Stribbing that producers love. Who will claim that a woman's narrative on her radical mastectomy dragged on in parts, that Mrs. X revealed little insight into her own predicament, that Ms. Y doesn't much understand chemo? Not me. But apparently people want to watch these clumsily edited talking-head segments, which comprise two-thirds of this production. Robust attendance is its own artistic defense.
The easy way out might be to claim that by all established traditions and definitions, For Our Daughters is not theater. As such, I could deny any jurisdiction over this genre, and remand it post-haste to a yet-undesignated critic, expert in the arts of the afflicted. (Readers: send in your resumes.) Because when Jeanine says that we cannot procrastinate any longer, and a graphic of a breast self-exam appears on the screen, and Jeanine says, "put your left hand behind your head, and your right hand over your heart" and the audience complies... at that point we are no longer dealing with anything that I recognize. Or want to recognize.
Meritorious (if largely by comparison) is Heaven and Home, a maudlin cousin in the family of victim-theater by the newly-formed Early Stage. Matthew Everett's "haunted love story in two acts" plays like a textbook on resuming life after losing someone to AIDS. Coping, Letting Go, Moving On. His bright dialogue about romance and friendship is not unfunny; like most of us, his attempts at tackling the big questions--god, grief, and the like--rarely amount to more than passionate cliches. The obvious influence here is Tony Kushner, whose Angels in America put an unidentified retrovirus under a microscope and discovered the slumbering conscience of a nation. While Everett shoplifts from Kushner in plot, tone, and substance, this appealing play stops short of fencing counterfeit goods. Ultimately, the Early Stage have discovered yet another way to say carpe diem. Why not? CP
For Our Daughters runs through May 5; call 338-8371;Heaven and Home plays at the Hennepin Center for the Arts through April 20; call 871-3223.