Papal Mâché

House of Blue Leaves
The Jungle Theater

The trouble with writing plays is that daily reality keeps taking steps with which one's feeble imagination can barely keep up.

--John Guare

IN 1971, WHEN John Guare wrote House of Blue Leaves, the idea of a disgruntled altar boy exploding the pope with a homemade bomb was a bit of a stretch. Surely, no one would attempt such a thing in real life. And only in the realm of satire could the motivation for such a crime be a simple plea for attention.

Funny how things change. Since then, the pope has been the target of an assassination attempt, and now waves to his minions through a bubble of bulletproof glass. Bombs have become the favorite form of expression for political deviants everywhere. And killing for the fame of it is almost a cliché among the nation's elite psychopaths.

Indeed, there are some plays that the years weaken and erode: Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, seen at the Jungle last season, is one good example: Drug addiction isn't the dirty little secret it once was. Yet there are other plays that pick up momentum, relevance, and strength as they travel through time, plays that continue to bond with the zeitgeist in unpredictable and sometimes frightening ways, accumulating an eerie sense of prophecy along the way.

House of Blue Leaves is one such play. It remains one of the most ruthless dissections of the American dream ever written. In many ways, amateur crooner Artie Shaughnessy's comical inability to move his life forward because of a lunatic wife and a conspicuous lack of talent is even more tragic than Willie Loman's battle with the fates. The first time I saw a production of Blue Leaves was in college. I hated it. I thought the script was stupid and the characters pathetic--a bunch of losers agog over the pope. Such is the sophistication of the young, male mind.

The next time was in 1991, ten years later, at the Jungle Theater. By that time, as it happened, I had experienced popemania firsthand, in San Francisco. The pope was scheduled to whiz down a road only six blocks away from my apartment. At the time I didn't really care. It was my roommates who convinced me that eyeballing the pope was important, much the way John Guare's Bunny pulls Artie Shaughnessy out of a sound sleep to participate in pope fever in New York, circa 1965. That afternoon in San Francisco, I was Artie Shaughnessy.

To my now pope-ified eyes, the hubbub over the pontiff in House of Blue Leaves no longer looks contrived nor idiotic. On the contrary, Bunny's enthusiasm seems eminently true-to-life. Her histrionics are tame compared to the lunacy I witnessed in San Francisco, where, for instance, one presumably gay couple celebrated the event by strolling around virtually naked with the pope's likeness painted on their respective penises. I think it was the pope, at least.

The Jungle's exceptional 1991 production opened my eyes to Guare's play. I was astonished at the play's apparent clairvoyance regarding the cult of celebrity in this country. And now that the Jungle is redoing Blue Leaves--the first of an entire season's worth of revivals--it's become obvious that Guare's play presciently identifies a degenerative sickness in American culture. Since 1991 we have witnessed the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Olympic Park bombing, and the apprehension of the Unabomber himself. In the last six months alone we have seen Andrew Cunanan kill Gianni Versace (apparently for the notoriety) and Lady Diana die for the sake of a little privacy. How much more affirmation can one play take?

All this is but one of the reasons to see the Jungle's reprised production. As acutely as it ever did, the Jungle's staging walks the delicate line between tragedy and comedy, continually playing one off the other in a discomfiting symphony of conflicting emotions. Many of the key roles have been reprised by the same actors: Bain Boehlke as Artie Shaughnessy, Rosalie Tenseth as Bunny, and William Grant as Ronnie. But the newcomers really redeem this revival. As the mentally ill wife, Bananas, Barbara Kingsley brings a depth of despair to the role that is positively creepy, and Mikki Daniels is gorgeously clueless as the deaf starlet Corrinna Stroller.

As I mentioned before, the Jungle has dedicated its entire season to revivals of plays from its two initial years in existence, of which Blue Leaves is the first. Good as the revival of Guare's play is, though, it remains to be seen if the public can sustain its interest in an entire season of Jungle retreads. Artistic director Bain Boehlke has asserted that he was compelled to look back at the theater's history because it is moving across the street to a new space next year. But the Jungle is only 8 years old, so it's not as if its productions have the weight of the ages behind them. History will judge whether this project bombs.

House of Blue Leaves continues at the Jungle Theater through December 7; call 822-7063.

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