Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Stimulating Production of John Belluso's The Rules of Charity
Playwright John Belluso is the country's most prominent theatrical voice for the disabled community. He has been confined to a wheelchair due to a bone disease since the age of 13. The Los Angeles playwright wrote a short one-act called Knot Stew for a 1998 production of the Manhattan Ensemble Studio which Magic Artistic Director Chris Smith directed. Belluso has now written a full two-act play around this scene which concludes the drama.
The Rules of Charity is no weepy tear-jerker soap opera - there is a touch of satire and farce in this production. This is another dysfunctional family on stage, which has become so popular in American theatre, and all of the five characters are crippled in someway - through apprehension, homophobia or holier-than-thou attitudes.
The opening scene tells you what to expect for the next two hours and ten minutes. The lights come up on Monty (Warren David Keith), the professorial disabled father, sprawled helplessly on the floor. He has fallen from his wheelchair. Daughter Loretta (Arwen Anderson) comes in to observe her powerless father. She slaps his face very hard and says, "Cruelty is a form of goodness. I've decide this to be true. And I've decided that from this day forward I will use only cruelty in all my dealings with you." She remembers what the father said to her a long time ago, that "love's power, the power that love has over us, it is the power of contradiction." This becomes the theme of the play.
Many interesting characters are introduced in this splendid emotional drama. One of the most interesting scenes, one bordering on satire, is in the first act when the Paz (Sally Clawson), as a gothic and wild "documentary" film producer who happens to be the daughter of the landlord and secret lover of a not-too-bright janitor L.H. (Andrew Hurteau), interviews Monty for the film. She does not know that L.H. has been batting on both sides by having a sexual affair with Monty. Paz cannot imagine that the disabled person could be gay. However, as she says, "identity is so fluid these days, everywhere you look there are black Jews, Filipino lesbians and why not gay disabled people too? Set another place at the table, there's room for everyone!"
Loretta meets hunk Horace (Gabriel Marin), a Stanley Kowalski character, taking a pee outside of a bar where he has drunk too much beer, and romance of a kind blooms between the two; by the second act they are married.
Rules of Charity's second act opens one year later when L.H. has discovered religion and has married Paz, who has also discovered religion. She has become a typical born again Christian, dressed very conservatively and being oh, so holy. L.H. has changed his name to Mr. Millicent. He has become a pompous ass who is a first class bigot, and he loves to quote some of the passages that condemn the morals of other persons who are not of his persuasion.
The second act contains some wonderful philosophical discussions between Monty and Mr. Millicent, each confronting the other with political philosophers such Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke and for good measure Nietzsche, while the ostentatious Millicent throws in biblical passages from the books of Kings and Luke. (It is a marvelous scene that is entitled "Knot Stew," the original one-act play.) This is still a work-in-progress play, according to the playwright, and some of scenes could use some small revisions, especially the last scene between father and daughter.
Warren David Keith (Life X 3 at Marin, California Shakespeare actor) gives an astonishing performance as Monty. His performance and speech patterns as the disabled character are absolutely amazing. Arwen Anderson (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change at Marines Memorial and Lobby Hero at the Aurora) is excellent as Loretta, playing many moods from awkward first meeting with her future husband, to angry confrontations with both males. She displays the weariest aspects of her life, even after her marriage to Horace who is an emotional cripple.
Gabriel Marin (Tape, Three Blooms) is wonderful as the affectionate and impractical Horace. He has a great voice that reminds me of the deceased Broadway and film peformer Mike Kellin. Andrew Hurteau (Schrodinger's Girlfriend, Summertime and Bronte) gives an effective performance, both as the clueless janitor L.H. and the pretentious Mr. Millicent. Sally Clawson (Fete de la Nuit at Berkeley Rep) tends to go a little over the top as documentary film maker Paz. It is almost a caricature, with very little human traits. However, as the sweeter-than-pie Christian, Joyce, in the second act, Clawson is excellent.
Chris Smith has stridently directed the piece and has staged the war of words between the actors brilliantly. Kris Stone's set design adds to the crux of the drama, with a noteworthy set of steel pipes that are pleated as a wall and randomly strewn television sets about the theatre.
The Rules of Charity is sharp and emotional and will be running in repertory with The Black Eyed and 3F, 4F through June 19th at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-441-8822 or visit magictheatre.org.