In a strange way, Landscape of the Body is John Guare’s version of Our Town—if the stage manager narrator were instead a dead porn star/lounge singer/travel agent spinning her story from beyond the grave. And instead of early twentieth century Grovers Corners, its setting is 1977 New York City. Landscape of the Body is a freaky little hybrid of a play—part comedy, part drama, part musical, part mystery. It’s a dark comedy, but oddly hopeful. It’s cynical, but ridiculously romantic at the same time. It’s a play that’s permanently ensconced in my list of top ten favorite plays of all time. Yet no one’s produced it locally before. So the newly minted Prufrock Theatre gets mountains of slack from me for deciding to launch the company with Landscape of the Body as its first production. It’s not a perfect production, but the play’s so good it almost doesn’t matter.
The play begins on a ferry to Nantucket Island, with a woman, Betty (Bethany Ford), sticking messages in bottles and tossing them overboard. A strange man (John Lilleberg) in Groucho Marx glasses, rubber nose and moustache engages Betty in conversation—but the man is no stranger. He’s the homicide detective who once grilled Betty under suspicion of having murdered (and decapitated) her 14-year-old son Bert (Tony Williams). Soon enough we’re back in that interrogation room, putting together the pieces of Betty’s life, and the end of Bert’s. Overseeing this excavation of memory is the spirit of Betty’s sister Rosalie (Ariel Pinkerton), singing songs (accompanied by Zachary Scot Johnson on piano) and ping-ponging back and forth through time until a complete picture is laid out before the audience—made up both of things known, and things Betty will never know. Betty and Bert first come to New York City on a mission to bring Rosalie back home to Bangor, Maine. Rosalie instead convinces Betty to stay in New York, right before getting mowed down by a particularly deadly ten-speed bicycle (ridden by Dan Averitt, in one of his multiple roles). Betty ends up taking over her sister’s life—finishing out a porn film contract, and swindling dim-witted brides with fake honeymoons under the watchful eye of Raulito (James Rodriguez) at a shady travel agency. She also takes her sister’s place in Raulito’s bed. Bert, meanwhile, gets his own side business going with his friend Donny (Kevin Fehlen). Bert lures men up to the family apartment, where Donny hits them over the head with a monkey wrench. They steal the money and watches off the men and roll them into the hall, to get cleared out by the cops as homeless intruders. Bert and Donny recount their exploits to teenage girlfriends Margie (Jessica Etukudo) and JoAnne (Sara Howes). JoAnne has a tendency to get caught up in urban legends which end in unusual deaths, a morbid curiosity which comes in handy later, when she meets her first dead body in real life. But wait, there’s still more. Just when you think this collection of oddballs couldn’t get any odder, up pops Durwood Peach (David Beukema). Durwood was a teenage ice cream vendor when Betty and Rosalie were growing up in Bangor. Durwood has nursed a singular obsession with Betty all these years. He’s a little nuts, but he’s also rich, and has a way with words. He’s determined to woo Betty away from New York, and leave Bert behind.
|landscape of the body, playing through november 21 at the minneapolis theatre garage. for tickets ($16-$18) and information, see prufrocktheatre.org.
Complex? Yes. Hard to follow? Nope. Guare and the production always hand the audience the right piece of information, and introduce the right character at the right time. There are no loose ends. All questions raised, get answered, at least for the audience. The characters need to make their peace with never knowing the whole story, never truly understanding the odd circumstances and twists of fate which enter their lives. From our perch beyond the fourth wall, we have the advantage of seeing the full picture, pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. The bonds of friendship, family and romance are examined in close-up, pulled apart and flung back together in strange combinations. It’s not just unraveling the mystery of how Bert died, but also an exploration of why we choose to live the way we do, why certain memories haunt us while other things drift away.
Director Leah Cooper has assembled a good team of actors and designers to work with on this project. Cooper also designed the set (in conjunction with Lighting Designer Jeff Bartlett and Properties Designer Kelly Schaub) and it keeps the action moving pretty well through the various locations needed by the play. Having the scene shifters wear trench coats in the style of the police detective from the opening scene is a nice touch (one of many from Costume Designer Deb Murphy). The use of music (from pianist Johnson) and sound (designed by Scot Moore) smooths over the transitions which take a little longer, embracing the structure that Guare already had in place in the text with his songs.
There are some fumbles. There seems to be more than the necessary amount of shouting going on. Intensity of emotion doesn’t always require an increase in volume. On another vocal front, the use of accents is bewildering. Some people have them, some people don’t. Some are consistent, some aren’t. It would almost have been less confusing if they all just spoke with whatever basic Midwestern lilt they were born to and leave it at that. Suspension of disbelief has an easier time if I’m not being taken out of the story wondering whether someone’s supposed to be imitating Katharine Hepburn, Queen Elizabeth, Rocky Balboa or Eliza Doolittle. Also, much as I love John Guare’s songs, they were all written in the key of “somebody John Guare knew could sing this in the original production.” Since this production had a couple of musical people at its disposal, it would have been kinder to reset the key of the songs to one that the actors could sing without straining. It’s hard for a performer to relax and deliver the song if they’re always wondering in the back of their head if they’ll be able to hit all the notes. That said, both the accents and the singing may improve further into the run.
Revisiting the play again, I find it strange that I’m so strongly drawn to Landscape and my other favorite of Guare’s plays, Six Degrees of Separation, because when you look at them, both have a strong vein of homophobia running through them. I’m not saying Guare himself is homophobic, but in Landscape violence against gay men, and homosexual panic, are central to the solution of the mystery of Bert’s death. Still, no homosexuals ever appear onstage. Even Raulito, who is clad in glamorous evening gowns under his business suit, isn’t cross-dressing because he wishes to be a woman, or sleep with men. He dons a fancy dress because as a child, this was his image of how all rich people wore clothes. Just a quirk of personality, in a play with many quirky personalities to spare.
If you want to see one of the great plays of the 20th century—weird sense of humor, beautiful way with language, colorful characters and intriguing plot—Landscape of the Body is your ticket. Prufrock Theatre made a wise choice for their opening act.
Three and a half stars: Highly Recommended.