Fire and Ice

The Burning House Group meet Joyce Carol Oates in Gulf War.

          In the business, the sentence you are currently reading is called the lead. The alliterative, boldface words at the top of the page are the head, and the short, descriptive "teaser" phrase that follows is the sub-head. If the head and sub-head are intriguing enough, more people will read what comes after them; look--that's what you're doing right now. The name beneath the sub-head--which savvy readers may already equate with the response, "skip to the next page"--is the byline; it serves the secondary purpose of reminding the editor who should receive the paycheck. That word needs no translation. This sentence plus the five that you already read are collectively known as a graf.

          Every industry has its own jargon; now that our species has lost its olfactory sensitivity, jargon helps identify who is in one's tribe and who is goyish. Actors are no exception to the rule. Or so it seems after speaking with The Burning House Group, a talented, two-year-old theater ensemble currently staging Joyce Carol Oates's Gulf War at the Pillsbury House Theatre.

          "We're interested in using the body as a complete instrument," actor Heidi Hunter Batz explains, "not just the thought and intellect." To tune this "instrument," the five members of the company--Allen Baker, Randal Berger, Heidi Hunter Batz, Matt Guidry, and Noel Raymond--have conducted a series of involved workshops with other area actors. In conversation with the group, the technique-titles come hard and fast: SITI, Viewpoints, Grotowski. Randal Berger and Matt Guidry have studied and performed with the Margolis Brown company, whose movement-theater method and its notions of "energy" have also entered the workshop mix. If The Burning House Group is to be believed, becoming a complete actor is as detailed a process as training to be a Jedi knight--and only a little less spiritual.

          In previous productions--12th Night in 1994, and the three-part Fireball Set last summer--The Burning House Group employed an aesthetic of barely controlled chaos; I watched an hour of Heiner Müller's Hamlet Machine without ever ascertaining which character was Hamlet. With the departure of John O'Donahue, who directed Hamlet Machine, the Burning House Group has jettisoned the chaos and tightened the control. Batz describes a "discipline and commitment to work," learned from workshops with the New York-based SITI company. At the same time, she claims their new emphasis on "physical vocabulary" has brought a creative liberation. As evidence, Batz points to the speed with which the company created the intricate blocking of Gulf War; it took just over a month. "We're like kids in a candy store now," she says. Noel Raymond explains it with the militancy of the converted: "Structure is freedom."

          "All this sounds ridiculous when we try to describe it," Allen Baker acknowledges. But like Margolis Brown, the endpoint of the jargon process is a visually engaging and highly accessible theater product. "We know there's nothing worse than not connecting with an audience," Baker says.

          One of the ironies of staging Oates's Gulf War after months of cathartic movement training is that the defining physical characteristic of the play's four characters is invisible to the audience: The sphincter. Nicole and Stuart Bell (played by Raymond and Randal Berger) are as tightly-wound as mummies--and every bit as white. He is part corporate climber and part little Hitler. "I love you," he tells his wife. "I hope you know that's the bottom line." She is a prematurely retired weatherwoman ruined by a fear of storms: One can only smile vapidly in the face of disaster for so long before something gives.

          Together, the Bells live in the "Fox Hill Hollow Planned Residential Development"; their redwood deck overlooks an artificial pond. The set--cold, spare, and white--defines the sterility and desolation of life in the Hollow. (An anecdote for the Bargain Basement Guide to Scenic Design: Berger claims to have built the couch by sawing his own bed in half.) When Nicole mixes her "vitamins" with a few tonic-less gin and tonics, the floor begins tilting beneath her. Stuart has a ready solution: "Maybe if we got some wall to wall carpeting in here...."

          The Widmarks, Mitzi and DeForrest, arrive at cocktail hour. DeForrest is a man five years past the last promotion he'll ever get. To Stuart, he smells like carrion. Allen Baker plays DeForrest as a full-time somnambulist, shuffling and mumbling across an infinite plateau of boredom. His eyes alone suggest animation; they bounce ping-pong-style across his black-framed glasses like a Felix-the-Cat clock. To compensate for her deadbeat husband, Mitzi is super-animated; when she wants attention, she holds her bloody mary overhead like the statue of liberty. Heidi Hunter Batz gives Mitzi a certain hunch to the shoulders that telegraphs the word "yenta." Her chest appears concave, as if moulded around a curved wooden coat hanger. In the Widmarks, one sees the Bells, plus 30 years. The Widmarks' anxieties have leaked through the containment chamber of corporate propriety; they might actually list starboard to compensate for the floor's phantom tilt.

          Whether characters like these in fact still exist could be open for debate. When Stuart and DeForrest finally connect, over scotch and angina on the redwood deck, it plays as a frantic trading of economic statistics--jargon makes the world go 'round. What the scene shows, other than the fact that Joyce Carol Oates doesn't read The Wall Street Journal enough to pull this off, is a fairly shopworn take on shoptalk. People, it seems, can't ever really communicate. (Maybe you've heard that before.) For what it's worth, I suspect the play, which the relentlessly prolific Ms. Oates probably knocked off in a good afternoon's work, is in large part an excuse for the shaggy dog joke that comes three-fourths of the way through. Needless to say, it is a very good shaggy dog joke.

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