Moving Violations

Say uncle: Uncle Peck (Tom Poole) and L'il Bit (Larissa Paige Kokernot) steer into uncertain country in Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive

How I Learned to Drive
Eye of the Storm

Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest
Theatre de la Jeune Lune

From Paula Vogel's casting notes for How I Learned to Drive: "Peck: Attractive man in his forties. Despite a few problems, he should be played by an actor one might cast in the role of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird."

Indeed, Vogel's Peck has all those features that makes Atticus Finch so consummately avuncular. Warm and wise, Peck tenderly tells his young son that it's all right to cry and lovingly fills the vacant father role for his niece, L'il Bit. He protects her, he teaches her to drive, he takes her out to celebrate when she gets her license. And, throughout her teenage years, he molests her.

The cognitive dissonance effected by a likable abuser opens the space in which Vogel writes. Her particular art is achieved through the tension of contradictions: the unlikely comes together, the known breaks down, and out of the remains comes drama. The Baltimore Waltz, previously Vogel's best known work, is an absurdist joyride that dumps the audience on its collective ass. Farce becomes tragedy; the real is imagined. The reality is AIDS. The less-known Hot 'N' Throbbing (1994) is a brutal take on pornography and violence. It fuses creation and destruction, family and lust, amusement and horror. In a conversation with this reviewer a few years ago, Vogel described Hot 'N' Throbbing as a "theater of cruelty," and she may be right; the play is carefully plotted to leave audiences nauseated, shaking, and hollow. It may be too masterful for its own good. Porn, cruelty, and nausea don't sell theater tickets.

Vogel has reported that she didn't expect anybody to produce How I Learned to Drive. She was wrong: The play has been running for over a year off-Broadway, and has won nearly every new-play award possible including the Pulitzer Prize. Rights for regional productions are hard to come by, and so this staging marks something of a coup for Eye of the Storm. It's a good match. Director Casey Stangl mounted The Baltimore Waltz in 1993, and the production was by far the most coherent, funny, and moving of the four stagings that this Vogel groupie has seen. Vogel's scripts are easy to screw up. They require an exquisite control of pace and an ability to navigate through abstractions in the staging to achieve a deeper dramatic empathy. In short, Vogel's scripts are smart.

How I Learned to Drive is narrated from L'il Bit's memories. It's her play and her process: She takes us back and forth over 25 years and with a snap of her fingers she changes the lights and turns her nagging family into a suave doo-wop chorus. The physical relationship between L'il Bit and her uncle develops in reverse, creating its own backward anticipation. As L'il Bit gets younger and younger we think, "Oh, yes--this, this is where it started." We are wrong, and we go further back.

Just as L'il Bit directs the action from her mind, Vogel (and Stangl) employ abstraction to create an aura of alienation. Most of the props here are imagined and mimed. This style is distracting at first, but when Peck slowly pours air out of a champagne bottle the resulting quiet is chilling. In a similar vein, each scene has a title taken straight from a driver's ed instructional video: With flat mechanical intonation, chorus members announce, "You and the Reverse Gear." The titles soon take on significance and the play achieves a language all it's own: The strange is familiar and the familiar strange.

Such abstractions make the characters' naturalistic emotions all the more affecting. Larissa Kokernot as L'il Bit and Tom Poole as Peck take exquisite care in portraying the complexities of this seven-year family affair. Young L'il Bit is attracted to her uncle, fascinated by sex, repelled by her uncle, terrified of sex. Yet she cares for him with an almost maternal tenderness. Poole's Peck is pathetic and sympathetic, kindly and loving; he's old avuncular Atticus. While touching L'il Bit sends him into ecstasy, his sexual attraction to his niece seems not exclusively evil, but a tenderness twisted and carried too far.

L'il Bit suggests some answers to the source of her uncle's pedophilia: abuse, World War II, drinking. But Vogel ultimately isn't concerned with psychology. A case history makes a character unique and specific; stripped of explanation L'il Bit and Peck become common and universal. With no definite etiology, L'il Bit and Peck linger on as possibilities, creating the ultimate cognitive dissonance: It could happen to us.

"Montana. Big Sky Country. Only here the air is a big haze of smoke...thicker than molasses and just as sticky." Welcome to 1929 and Personville, Montana. Townsfolk call it "Poisonville"--but they also call a shirt a "shoit." Organized labor has moved out, organized crime has moved in, and all the gangsters in all the speakeasies in Poisonville sound the toast, "Here's to Prohibition!"

Poisonville is the crime-ridden hellhole at the center of Theatre de la Jeune Lune's adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest. The city is run by a handful of mobsters with names like Reno, Lew, and Whisper. The one guy who could clean up the town has just gotten dead, and Hammett's detective, The Continental Op, wants to finish the job (and this time, it's poisonal.) Detectives, mobsters, and dames--it's noir all right, ripe for the stark, smoky, light-through-the-blinds, life's-a-bitch, Bogie-drawl style of adaptation.

Of course, this ain't film. Stage noir is an interesting project--imitating a form that depends so much on the screen's inherent synthesis of elements. Jeune Lune's production, though, embraces the conventions of the genre, making the more conspicuous noir details an indivisible part of the production. Everything from the costumes to the acting is literally done in black and white (except for three splashes of red--a tie, an apple, and, oh, some blood).

Typical film-noir music with its rolling bases and doom-thundering percussion has been replaced by swing, swing, swing. Whisper (Dominique Serrand) floats across the stage in a one-two-three waltz, while The Op (Robert Rosen) and Dinah the doomed dame (Sarah Agnew) link arms and two-step through the city. The amplified rustle of a salt shaker becomes another kind of score, as does the tapping of a spoon, or the ringing of a glass. A tick of a clock through a microphone becomes a tell-tale heart. It's cartoon noir, cute noir, and the effect is genuinely cool.

The play finishes with a Hamlet-esque body count--10 cast members, 10 corpses--though the arithmetic isn't as simple as it sounds. Neither is the plot. In true noir fashion, so many loose ends are left dangling they seem an essential part of the tapestry. The plot seems to turn every other moment, becoming so complicated so quickly that before long, we can only sit back and watch the pretty pictures.

It is difficult to feel the tension of a story that's changing so fast; stripped of suspense, the play begins to feel over-long in the second half. The audience deflates as we move past hour number two, though a limp second act is so common these days that it barely matters. Cue music, cue lights, cue an absurdly clever closing image, and all is forgotten. If only the folk in Poisonville had such short memories.

How I Learned to Drive runs through June 13 at the Loring Playhouse; call 332-1619.Red Harvest runs through June 21 at Theatre de la Jeune Lune; call 333-6200.

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