IT'S HARD NOT to be envious when one hears stories of the days when theater audiences erupted at avant-garde plays, throwing chairs and storming out. No one leaves the theater in shock and anger anymore; only boredom.
So it's some consolation, I suppose, to watch a performance where at least the theater company is outraged. Hidden Theatre is upset about poverty and classism, and--I'd wager--our society's simultaneous abundance of anger and paucity of political outrage. When Brian Baumgartner turns to the audience and shrieks a drawn-out "FUUUUUCCCKKK!" it's more than the character talking. The Crackwalker is a piece by Canadian social worker/playwright Judith Thompson which addresses the evils of urban poverty with a contemporary twist. Where Dickens was concerned with poor people's intelligent defiance, Thompson portrays her subjects as dangers to themselves and everyone else. Whatever classism you harbor will be lured out, with raw meat: This is drama, and Thompson takes utmost interest in her characters' ugliest sides.
Here's the lowdown (and I do mean low): In a grimy urban setting of bricks and trash cans, with a soundscape of dripping water, traffic, and Jimi Hendrix, live two couples who most people would define as pure white trash (but Canadian-style, which means they say things on the order of, "Then he got on top of me, eh?"). Joe, played forcefully by Baumgartner, is the biggest, meanest excuse for an asshole you'd never want to meet; he gives us the rare experience of watching a man knock his wife's face against the edge of a TV. His wife, Sandy, played marvelously by Jana Groda, is the eye of the storm, a decent person who takes a little too much pleasure in Joe's fists. Then there's Theresa (Annelise Christ), a retarded prostitute who dresses like Courtney Love in her pre-Hollywood phase, and Al (Shane Sooter), her barely brighter lover.
It's a voyeuristic trip, like eavesdropping on your next-door neighbors' quarrels: You prick up your ears, but you're afraid you'll hear something that'll force you to choose between calling the cops and shutting the window. Then again, each character is given a scene or two in which to reveal his or her tender side. The make-up scene between Joe and Sandy is quiet and convincing: They need each other, they're partners, and they'll lie to each other till doomsday in order to stay together.
With all this tension, complemented by lots of cigarette smoking, half the audience stumbled out onto the sidewalk at intermission to light up themselves. Gossip was passed: One of the actors walked out 48 hours before opening, apparently feeling the play wasn't politically correct. His character, a homeless drunk--perhaps the sidewalk scraper of the title--is hinted to be Native American in the script. This marks the third recent last-minute walkout in local theater for racial/political reasons, none of which appears to have left a lasting impression other than one of unprofessionalism.
Still, it's the white people who come off worst here. Christ probably has the toughest role, and her exaggerated idiot accent goes too far at times. But stomping around in slip dresses and spike heels, all tits and skin and gaping mouth, she makes us care about her. And you'd never know David Schulner stepped in at the last minute; he brings some depth to a role that consists of muttering, puking, and lurking on the margins, phantom-like. Eventually the moment comes when we see that thing we'd expected and feared, a punishing scene in which the characters' poverty and ignorance combine in a way that should haunt audiences for the rest of the night, if not longer.
Hidden Theatre is doing something right. They've got all the ingredients: intelligence, an evocative set (by Jay Dysart), good acting and costumes, artistic integrity, and the refreshing and honorable desire to shake things up. But something troubles me. The Crackwalker must have seemed provocative when it debuted in 1980, but after living in various big cities throughout the Reagan/Bush era, seeing this sort of material in real life and on the news, in movies and newspapers, I confess I'm jaded. To paraphrase the Bard, humans are the paragon of animals indeed. The beauty of the world, the quintessence of crap. And poverty is shit. Can you tell us something we don't already know?
The Crackwalker plays at the Southern Theater through Feb. 23; call 340-1725.