Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Knowledge of the original play is not essential, but it is valuable if one is to fully appreciate the premise to this extraordinary composition: Roman General Titus Andronicus returns victoriously from a decade of battle with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Minus 21 of his 24 sons, his spoils of war consist of Tamora, her three sons, and her lover, Aaron the Moor. Titus and youngest son Lucius honor their dead by sacrificing one of the captured queen's sons. Titus declines the offer of the throne upon the death of the Emperor, insisting it go to the natural heir, Saturninus, and tenders his only and much admired daughter Lavinia to be his wife. Misogyny aside, this offer offends the new emperor's younger brother Bassianus as he was already betrothed to the lovely Lavinia.
Amid the quarrels and recriminations, Saturninus (oh fickle, fickle man), decides to free Tamora and her companions, and marry her instead. As the new empress plots revenge on Titus, her two remaining sons' lewd yearning for the chaste Lavinia is encouraged by Aaron and after murdering Bassianus, they celebrate by raping and mutilating the unfortunate maiden, amputating her hands and tearing out her tongue so she cannot testify against them. Titus' elder sons are falsely incriminated in the murder, leading to their arrest. Aaron promises to free the boys if Titus will sacrifice his hand. Titus severs the requested portion, giving it to Lavinia to carry in her teeth to Saturninus. Within the hour, Titus' hand, and the heads of both sons are returned.
While Lucius, now Titus' only son, gathers an army to overthrow Saturninus et al, Tamora has a baby by Aaron, who spirits the child away for safety, though not before murdering both the nurse and midwife to ensure their silence. Titus kidnaps and murders Tamora's two remaining sons, and in a bout of domestic munificence, bakes them into a pie for Tamora and her husband to enjoy. After dinner chit-chat leads to Lavinia's murder at the hand of her father in order to preserve the family façade, whereby Saturninus kills Titus, Lucius kills both Saturninus and Tamora and eventually Aaron.
Which leads us to the opening scene of Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, now in performance by Fusion at The Cell Theatre, directed by Laurie Thomas. We meet Carol (Jacqueline Reid), an almost storybook lass, charming and appealing except for her meandering gaze, bludgeoned skull, and slit throat. The blood she leaves behind is cleaned up by the next character, Gary (Bruce Holmes), a somewhat harlequin, steampunk, lackadaisical servant. He is followed by Janice (Sherri Edelen), the no-nonsense, plain-speaking, longtime maid. Collectively and solo, these three actors present us with a dark apocryphal vision, their wry humor diluting the horror of the truth. This blend of satire, slapstick, comedy and tragedy, combined with poetry, song and dance, is initially bewildering. Yet from these seeds grow our understanding of the ancient dangers of power unchecked.
The original Broadway run was panned by some and acclaimed by others, but it would be a big mistake to dismiss this fundamentally ineffable play as shallow or preposterous. With a storyline so appalling it could be seen as comedic, it is far more than a pantomime with teeth. Rather it is a tongue-in-cheek social commentary of today's political and social collapse, which observes, appraises and judges the lunacy of our times. Power plays, the savagery of war, inherent danger of criticizing the administration, individuals' immense desire to survive are presented to us with such vicious abandon, that hilarity becomes a necessity. As a member of first audience in the world to see this play outside of its Broadway run, it wasn't just the hearty guffaws from the other spectators which made me glad to be part of it.
The set, a mixture of near-white columns and marble walls, with a somewhat industrial background, complement the blood and bodies which often populate the stage. War is not pretty, poetry about a pile of rotting corpsesthe disposal of which plagues mass murderers to this dayis rarely encountered elsewhere. In Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, we see two disparate characters confront the reality before them. Janice, a longtime "morgue technician," has no time and little patience for Gary's bustle and braggadocio. He talked himself out of the noose by volunteering for cleanup duties, and his astonishment upon learning he is not only subservient to a woman, but is expected to actually work, struck chords of amusement with many spectators at the performance I attended. Janice, having lived and survived many coups by flying below radar, is alternately bewildered and entertained by Gary's patriarchal views, his dreams of a "Fooling" creating a new class of people, and finally his patent belief in the power of the penis.
With references to the original play citing the folly of ignoring the inevitable consequences of battle, making their continued employment guaranteed, it is interesting to see how each influenced the other, slowly moving toward a middle ground. This is a really funny play, and there was laughter on both sides of the fourth wall even as the self-proclaimed dignity and arrogance of evil lay dismembered before us. While both Gary and Janice live in their stage reality, poor Carol is trapped in hers. The nursemaid, supposedly slaughtered the Moor, survived only to be haunted by guilt and the memory of the infant she thought dead. Her presence gives an unwelcome reminder of what happens to those who are left alive.
All three actors are excellent, and their accents solid throughoutyou can't tell they weren't in fact born under the sound of the Bow Bells, so the entire production stays impressive from beginning to end. Bruce Holmes' Gary is a great deal of fun, and the actor does an excellent job in the role. Jacqueline Reid's Carol is profound, dreamy, disturbed, and sadly separated from reality
But the standout here is Sherri Edelen; her Janice is someone we all know. That singular individual who forms the bedrock of our lives. The woman who is so busy shoring up our shortcomings we forget she has a life of her own, and deserves some light in it. As she winds sausage-like intestines around a baker's rack and gives extra consideration to the dead women and children, her immunity to events is evident. And she is a riot, an onstage gem. Janice, as much as Gary, needs to survive, though their methods markedly differ. Entertaining and tragic, she has some of the best lines in the script, and Edelen nails every single one.
Allegedly based on events during the 2016 election, many similarities are apparent: Janice could be the Hillary Clinton of the time, or perhaps today's Elizabeth Warren. Gary, whoever he is, is certainly not Trump. His intelligence, humor and possession of redeeming qualities preclude that conclusion. And Carol, well, how many delusional, out of touch, self-absorbed people do we know? Yet she, too, has many saving graces.
The props deserve their moment: Robyn Phillips has done an outstanding job with this challenge. The pile of corpses is well thought out, wittily imitative, and deliberately not replicative of the actual feature. Satire runs rampant; marionettes with massive penises (or is it peni?) dance for our edification, and the tiniest details have been attended to, and with care. Bravo.
This play is undeniably unusual. And that may be the only thing to slap us into action in the coming months. I was admittedly more than a little mystified in the opening moments, but enamored with the whole thing now, even in my memory. I highly recommend you see this production before it strikes. Well done all.
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus runs through February 16, 2020, at the The Cell Theatre, 700 First NW, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40; $35 seniors; under 30 pay your age. The February 16 performance is pay-what-you-wish at 6 p.m. at the KiMo Theatre, 423 Central NW, Albuquerque NM. For tickets and information, please visit fusionnm.org or call 766-9412.