THEATER REVIEW | Box Wine Theatre’s “A Modest Proposal”: Not for everyone

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Fair warning right up front: This review is going to be riddled with spoilers because I can’t adequately address the things that trouble me about this play without laying out some of the plot points that cause me the most discomfort.

“If writers didn’t want their works misinterpreted why did they let other people read them in the first place?”

You have to hand to it Box Wine Theatre. They certainly aren’t afraid of offending anybody. They take aim at their satirical targets and they don’t let up. Their latest offering, the premiere of Adam Sharp’s new script A Modest Proposal, isn’t troubled by subtlety in the least. They’ve got a point to make and they hammer it home. The question here is, with the number of subplots in play, and the number of targets in their sights, what point, precisely, are they trying to make? And might they have been able to stop driving the point home earlier than they do?

“If we can’t be breadwinners for our children, perhaps it’s time for the children to become the bread.”

A Modest Proposal is actually a satire based on another satire of the same name. Back in the 1700s, the famous author and satirist Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) wrote an essay now widely known as A Modest Proposal in which he discussed a solution to overpopulation, poverty and food shortages. Swift suggested that poor people sell their babies to the rich to be eaten. Of course, he didn’t mean this. It was a joke Swift thought was so blatantly obvious that he didn’t feel the need to peek out from behind the curtain and explicitly say, “Just kidding, folks.”

“I’ll bet his bone marrow tastes like golden honey.”

Adam Sharp’s A Modest Proposal explores what might happen if anyone took Jonathan Swift’s essay seriously. Bartley O’Really (Tom Goerger) and his wife Dairine (Dawn Krosnowski) just can’t seem to stop making babies. In addition to their high-strung son Cillian (Alexander Stene), there is a whole herd of wee ones toddling about—plastic baby dolls manipulated and voiced by Matt Kelly, Kay Kistler, Jason Kruger, and Amanda Kay Thomm.  Bartley has also run afoul of the local banker Mr. Wiley (Cody Stewart), mostly because Bartley is horrible with money, and Mr. Wiley has an endless supply of predatory loans to offer the O’Really clan.  That clan also includes Bartley’s brother Aengus (Michael Renner), the town butcher with dreams of being a Shakespearean actor, and Aengus’ daughter Kennedy (Brianna Regan) who is chafing under her father’s insistence that she, too, apply herself to a life in the theater.

“Find me a block of wood or a decomposing bunny and I’ll eat it.”

The first hour of A Modest Proposal is spent setting up the premise and getting us to that first baby meal. But the structure of the play fakes the audience out into thinking that will be the whole story. The first scene is the family sitting down to a meal. The adult parental characters all seem to be having a normal chatty dinner time together. The adult children Cillian and Kennedy seem upset about something. When the play returns to this scene an hour later, we understand the characters better, and we know what the meal is.  We know what we’re seeing. OK, play over then, right? Oh, another scene, OK, epilogue, right? No. The play continues for over half and hour after that.

“Would you like to remain onstage a little bit longer?”

So one of two things is going on here—either the play is running on way too long, or the entire first hour is an enormous and largely unnecessary prologue. Because the second half of the play is a display of what a town would look like if its entire economic system depended on the sale and slaughter of children. But they’re just plastic dolls, so we’re supposed to think it’s funny. However, like Jonathan Swift himself (Glen Stone) who comes to visit the town, I am more horrified than amused at the sacrifices.

“It’s like looking at a festering ax wound that won’t heal.”

But come on, you say, it’s a joke. See? It’s just baby dolls getting chopped up, not real babies. That’s funny. Yeah, but I’m supposed to believe those are actual babies. Given the actual horrors visited upon real babies all over the world on a regular basis, personally I just don’t find it funny.

“I prefer to think of myself as a non-profit.”

A Modest Proposal also seems horrified by the stupidity of people—whether it’s in quite literally sacrificing their children, not to a god, but for profit; or it’s people too dumb to understand how money works so that other people have to step in a clean up the mess. Again, given the actual misery inflicted on the world by war and economic collapse and austerity, also not a subject I find terribly funny. (It’s also why I fail to enjoy laughing at humor aimed at our supposedly dimwitted former President Bush. He was still smart enough to mire us in two wars, wreck the economy, make a personal profit himself and get away scot free.)

“Cillian, you’re an expert. What does your atheist God have to say on the subject.?”

Finally, the subplot with the romance between first cousins Cillian and Kennedy convinces me that maybe I just don’t get the joke, or don’t care to.  It’s not the borderline incest that I mind, though I probably should. It’s the shame related to the human body, in particular the female body, and procreation vs. sex for pleasure. Kennedy can’t make her father hear that she doesn’t want to become an actress. So she takes control of her life by having her arms and legs cut off for sale on the black market. There! No arms, no legs, too disabled to act, too mutilated to be considered pretty. (And yes, there are about ten things wrong with that last sentence that have nothing to do with basic sentence structure.) 

“It’s wrong to stare when someone’s trying to commit suicide.”

But wait, there’s more. Cillian was forced to aid his mother in delivering babies when he was younger, to spare father Bartley the sight of his wife’s lady parts. Cillian is so traumatized by this that he goes into the priesthood just to escape being confronted with women’s bodies. In fact, whenever he’s in the same room with Kennedy, even though he’s attracted to her, he becomes violently ill and runs off. Because Kennedy has a vagina. So Kennedy decides to get a makeover for her man and remove her head from her torso, and that pesky vagina. Cillian and Kenney’s head are married. And still have sex (don’t contemplate the mechanics of that for too long)—procreative sex (really don’t contemplate the mechanics of that too long).  She gives birth to a whole litter of disembodied baby doll heads.

“I want to have his babies and then eat them.”

This is a difficult review for me to write because I know a number of the artists involved—the writer, the director and a few of the actors as well. It’s clear they’re all throwing themselves into this project with abandon. Theater that has something to say is preferable (for me at least) to theater that simply exists to entertain or anesthetize as if the audience didn’t have a functioning brain in their heads. Box Wine Theatre wants a thinking audience, and they’re not at all afraid to poke the soft spots in a spectator’s brain. The artists want those hearing the story to be alert, amused, and perhaps a little bit angry. But to what end?

“Knock knock.”
“There isn’t a door. You can just come in.”

Writer Adam Sharp and director Bethany Simmons are both smart, liberal-leaning people, as I’m sure are many of the artists who choose to work on a piece like A Modest Proposal. They surely don’t mean to imply “The fact that women have vaginas, which produce babies, is a problem.” Surely they mean things like, “The way men can’t handle the fact that women have vaginas is a problem.” “The way men are incapable of parenting is a problem.” “The tendency of society to sacrifice the poor and the weak as a matter of convenience is a problem.” But that’s not the message I’m getting from this production.

“You’re kind of doing a devilishly wicked laugh right now.”

You can argue I’m overthinking it. You can argue that I’m missing the point. But I’d argue that A Modest Proposal is taking aim at so many targets at once that it never really focuses cleanly on any one of them and gets a good solid hit. Who’s story is it? Who are we following? What do they want? What’s at stake? Also, there isn’t any counter to the rampant stupidity in this town. Swift himself doesn’t make much of a dent and he comes along pretty late in the action besides. Characters voice a reservation here and there, but are quickly won over. There’s nothing normal in this world to measure the comedy and horror against.  No straight man, if you will. We can hardly count on modern day society to count as normal from outside the play. Even the babies go along with the carnage, they’re just trying to unionize for better conditions in the slaughterhouse.

A Modest Proposal might be your thing. If any or all the above sounds funny to you, you’re Box Wine’s target audience with this one. I’m a fan of new plays. I’m also a fan of Box Wine and have enjoyed Sharp’s satire in the past. I’m just not with them on A Modest Proposal.