There are times you feel like maybe you’ve failed somehow as an audience member. This is what I’m struggling with as I consider Savage Umbrella’s current production of Care Enough.
Because all the elements are there. It should work. So I feel like maybe I’m missing something.
There’s a strong ensemble of actors led by the trio of Anna Carol, Santino Craven, and Adam Scarpello. There’s the nimble, sure-handed direction of Laura Leffler-McCabe. There’s a poetic, elliptical script about pressing contemporary challenges, written by Carl Atiya Swanson. The music compositions and sound design of Ted Moore (and the overall use of noise in general) are very evocative. Still, with all that, somewhere along the way as a spectator my experience became completely unmoored and random.
“I know everyone likes to think their suffering is unique.”
To be fair, this could be the point of the proceedings. Care Enough is about protest, questioning and even upending the status quo, reevaluating and reshuffling reality. At a certain point, though, if you’re questioning literally everything—are these people real? or alive? is any of this even happening?—you’re so far down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass at the same time that you don’t have anything on which to even hang your thoughts. I don’t expect theater (or anything, really) to provide me with all the answers, but if you can’t even decide on the questions, why do you need me around to watch and listen?
“I can think of worse things than being silent and funny.”
Stephen (Adam Scarpello) is being held hostage by Sebastian (Santino Craven)—or it could be that the whole thing is taking place in Stephen’s head. Stephen is repeatedly haunted by memories of his relationship with Sophia (Anna Carol), who he met when she saved him from unruly crowds when a street protest got out of hand. A singing and energetically physical Greek chorus of sorts (Kathryn Fumie, Sara Hollows, Mason Mahoney and Nora Sachs) help to flesh out the stories and memories of the three central characters.
“Your dead surround you, whispering in your ear.”
Stephen is ostensibly our hero, but the play also makes it clear he’s the villain. He’s the straight white guy. The establishment that everyone is protesting is built for his benefit. Even if he’s not actively protecting it against the protesters, just by virtue of who he is and the privilege he enjoys, he’s on the wrong side of this conflict. This, despite the fact that he wishes to go down to the protest and be among the people (some of whom also have to be white and straight and male, right? But not in this scenario. It’s all women and people of color or both). The play makes a strong implication that Stephen will always be part of the problem, never part of the solution. He is a dilettante. He’s enjoying the protest as entertainment. He doesn’t understand it. He can’t sincerely be interested in whatever the protesters are protesting. He is not welcome.
“A boy possessed by revolution, impervious to bullets.”
Stephen is also stunningly clueless. Either that or he’s in such deep denial that you can’t even pity him. It’s willful ignorance. For instance, how do you not notice when rough sex with your girlfriend isn’t consensual? If you’re so caught up inside your own experience that you don’t see the other person underneath you, I guess that’s where it starts. But then, to also pretend you don’t remember having sex with a guy (even if the guy in question weren’t built and inked like the form of Santino Craven)? Stephen’s either lying or completely deluded, neither of which is a good look on the character.
“When you don’t dream what do you have to offer life?”
On a certain level, I get it. Stephen is doing to Sophia and Sebastian what the white man has always done to women and people of color—literally and figuratively screwing them. But if you’re going to go there, then go there. We see Stephen’s treatment of Sophia on full display—both the tender and the abusive. Stephen’s relationship with Sebastian is only inferred through dialogue and some interpretative physical movement (and the not-unexpected phallic imagery of an intimidating long-barreled pistol Sebastian keeps waving around and using to threaten Stephen—even if, you’ll forgive the metaphor, all the chambers aren’t fully loaded).
“Love isn’t supposed to make you feel like a thief and a liar.”
The play’s almost as guilty of the heteronormative bias that’s used to condemn Stephen. And this from one of the most queer-friendly and sex-positive companies currently working in this town. Here, Savage Umbrella may be a victim of their own previous success at pushing the envelope where human sexuality is concerned. If I hadn’t already seen The Ravagers and Ex-Gays and Leaves, I might think the sexual politics of Care Enough were pretty out there. As it is, I kept waiting for the production to go places it never went.
“Eventually you will find new ways to feed yourself.”
Also, there’s a difference between being vague and being opaque. What exactly the protesters are protesting is never clear. Thoughts of the Occupy movement are inevitable. But even though all protests have certain elements in common, a protest about income inequality is different from a protest for the civil rights of African Americans or a protest for women’s rights or a protest for gay rights or a protest against a war or a protest to keep a person from losing their home.
“I don’t know if optimism has anything to do with it.”
Again, harkening back to previous Savage Umbrella outings, their universality came from their specificity. Audience members could see themselves in the characters, even if the characters were very unlike them. They could see these “others” as people through the lens of the storyteller and the performers. Here, the protesters are always this nameless outside force, fighting something that is never defined. The only clear implication is that we as the audience, like Stephen, do not understand. We are not welcome. We cannot be part of the solution because we will never acknowledge the problem. We are dismissed.
“You should want to hear from your ghosts.”
In a similar way, the characters spend a lot of time talking to one another in riddles and unanswered questions, often commenting on the action rather than engaging each other in actual conversation. It’s one thing to make Stephen constantly struggle to figure out what’s going on. To also keep the audience always at arm’s length is an odd strategy from a company that frequently does just the opposite. Often in a Savage Umbrella production, the audience is plunked down in the middle of a situation in which they may not be entirely comfortable, but there’s no escaping it. Even if the environment is foreign, by being in the middle of it and absorbing the details of the situation, the audience comes to understand. In Care Enough, more often than not, the audience remains on the outside looking in, not given quite enough clues to ever figure out what’s going on, much less how they should feel about it.
“Go back, love, to pick up what you forgot.”
And yet, even as I say all this, I think it must be my problem, not theirs. They’re smart, talented people. They know what they’re doing. They’ve done it many times before. If I’m not getting it, I must have missed something. I just wish I could figure out what it is. Through the foggy lens of memory, Stephen is reminded again and again of the chants of the protesters. But all he can remember are the questions, just the call of the call and response. The response is lost to him…
“What do we want?!”
“When do we want it?!”
All good questions. I just wish I felt like I was closer to knowing the answers.