Frank Theatre's area premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks's Fucking A spurns a standard theater's creature comforts in favor of the concrete floor of a machine shop in the old Pillsbury mill complex. It's a fittingly austere space for director Wendy Knox's unflinching take on a difficult, wrenching work that bores into the primal heart beneath society's veneer: power, greed, reproduction, and cruelty.
John Bueche's set lends a visual jolt. Placed in the back of the industrial shop, it's all corrugated metal, rundown appliances, and assorted found objects defining stylized domestic squalor (there are also small mini-sets installed at various vertical levels, making use of the space's high ceiling). Said squalor belongs to Hester Smith (Shá Cage), whose chest has been branded with a scarlet "A." In Hawthorne's colonial America, the letter stood for adultery. In Parks's world, it stands for "abortionist," and, as we are reminded time and again, the wound continues to weep and reek.
The action takes place in a "small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere," a land that features a repressive police state and an oppressive bureaucracy. The Mayor rules, more people are in jail than out, and escaped prisoners are hunted down and tortured to death by vigilantes. Hester pines for her son, who was arrested on trumped-up charges and taken from her when he was a boy. Thirty years have passed, and she's been making payments into the "Freedom Fund" to buy his release. All that stands in her way are sinister clerks, man-hunting gangs, and her own tragic inability to recognize the changes that time and injustice have wrought on the grown-up Boy Smith (Ron Collier, sly and furtive.)
Cage's task is no easy one: The production hinges on her ability to convey Hester's pariah status while giving the character the guileless naiveté to propel her through the action and stave off the cynical heartlessness all around her. Cage succeeds, with a sweet, open expression that quickly shifts with flashes of anger, clouds of shame, and crushingly palpable humility. She also plays well off Maria Asp's Canary Mary, the Mayor's kept woman, with the two evincing some of the only interpersonal warmth onstage all evening (discounting Emil Herrera's amusingly pompous and vacuous Mayor, who radiates enough self-love to heat the building).
An unexpected love interest materializes in the form of the Butcher (Gregory Stewart Smith); Smith earnestly plays the blood-spattered Butcher with an uncomplicated goodness that hits the perfect note once Cage turns steely and angry in the second act. Smith has good comedic instincts, notably in his solo vocal number about the virtues of marrying a "meat man." More than once he keeps matters from becoming too ponderous, especially during a recital of crimes his daughter committed, long and surreal and made deeply funny by Smith's air of consternated frustration.
Fucking A nods at Greek tragedy and Brechtian musicality; the latter aspect works only sporadically due to the cumbersomely wordy tunes and the limited vocal ability of some cast members (Michael Croswell's bluesy musical accompaniment is consistently solid). The tragedy requires a Hester who denies reality in front of her eyes, and who is convincing doing it. Parks pulls it off, and the ending is both appropriate and appallingly shocking.
This is an evening that jars and grates, entertains, amuses, and generally slaps you around. Suzan-Lori Parks, for her part, is flirting shamelessly with greatness. Fucking A creates a moral Nowhere Zone, with gold coins and abortions vying for psychological space with gold lamé and scar tissue. It's a world in which very bad things happen for no reason at all. Fucking A, indeed.
Writing about music might be like dancing about architecture, but with drama one hopes to fare marginally better--as long as a production appears on some sort of stage and adheres to at least a preponderance of the conventions handed down from antiquity. Not so with The House, the third installment in Skewed Visions' urban troika--The City Itself--of site-specific theater (The Car, the company's previous work, was reviewed in the September 22 City Pages). Gulgun Kayim directs an energetic and totally unorthodox hour that probes the scars of domesticity with the scalding intensity of a particularly vivid and improbable dream.
Arriving at the door of an average-looking house in south Minneapolis, one is confronted with what could be taken for a nuclear family (they never explain who they are) with shared gifts for paranoia, wild mood swings, and random and disturbing utterances. But The House is a family drama only in the most metaphorical sense. As an audience member, you're led from room to room and from scenario to scenario. Writer Charles Campbell cobbled together dialogue from such purveyors of down-to-earth folksiness as Brecht (him again), Italo Calvino, Julio Cortazar, and W.G. Sebald; in conjunction with inventive sets and a remarkable degree of detail, each scene evokes emotions ranging from pity to shock to befuddlement.
Vera Mariner's solo reading, "The Yellow Wallpaper," is despairing and ghostly, as are Vanessa Voskuil's dances of frenzy and abandon (on opening night she launched herself, horizontally, out a ground-floor window), while Nathan Christopher adds haunted mania to match Charles Campbell's dissolute tension. The House adopts a take-no-prisoners approach, applying imagery like coats of paint to the waking and subconscious mind. It's also a good deal of fun, and those fortunate enough to see it will have it rattling agreeably through their dreams.