Off Ramp Comedy
What has been said about the rich - they're very different than you and me - might actually apply more to the artistic, if Tina Howe's play, "Approaching Zanzibar," is any indication. Howe's characters, whose talents range from classical composition to quilt-making, have odd dreams, odd sensibilities, make odd observations, and, well, are just plain odd.
"Approaching Zanzibar" is ostensibly a play about a road trip-the Blossom family, Wally Charlotte, and the kids, Turner and Pony, pile into the family truckster to drive 2,000 miles to Taos, New Mexico to visit Olivia, an elderly, dying relative who also happens to be a famed artist a la Christo and Jean-Claude. Along the way, they encounter a psychic deaf girl, a loquacious father-and-baby, several family members, possibly a bear, interspersed with moments of celestial pondering and the spectre of death-it's like National Lampoon's Vacation as written by Jean-Paul Sartre.
My theater companion noted that, perhaps due to our exposure to commercials, mass media's high speed erosion of our collective attention spans, modern plays often have a choppy quality-scenes are brief and briefer, snippets that don't allow the audience a chance at any indepth contemplation of what's happening on stage. The action quickly rushes over us and we are left wondering...very little, as the production is geared toward "what's next." Perhaps by play's end there's a chance to muse, "just what was that all about," but in the moment, it's just one quick bit after another.
There are nine scenes in this approximately two hour play, and each one is a self-contained moment, not ostensibly tied to the next other than chronologically. There's a thunderstorm, the sounds of which drop Charlotte (Jennifer Skarzinski) to her knees in terror as she recites the Lord's Prayer. Later she recounts her continuing dreams of a crying changeling baby which "smells like cinnamon." Turner, a classical guitarist, shouts for silence so he can listen to the "humming of the planets" which eventually the entire family can hear.
Is this a metaphor for how the artistic mind can sense things that "regular folks" cannot? Or are these just very weird people? More importantly, why do we, the audience, care?
Again, these quick vignettes provide no real time for character development. Who are these people? What drives them? Nine-year-old Pony (Zoe Gallagher), evidently named because she always wears a "My Little Pony" jumper, is possessed with the idea of her own death. Why? Olivia feigns dementia and near-death psychosis as her family writhes with anguish at the sight, only to suddenly bolt upright from her deathbed with an "I fooled ya!" In normal circles, this would be in very bad taste, but instead, the whole family laughs with delight.
Yes, the artistic are very different than you and me...and that's part of the problem with the play. How do we relate with such people, none of whom are particularly likeable. Howe presents us with Wally, a man who achieved some small fame with his composition, "The Atlantic Suite," but now seems to have lost his muse, his frustration and anger over his disappearing talent bursting forth over a snagged fly-fishing line. But why has his talent waned? And why is it worth mentioning? In fact, nothing more is done with this element of Wally's character; it is just dropped, much as Wally drops his fishing pole and storms off.
"Approaching Zanzibar" seems to be trying very hard to tell us something, much as the deaf mute psychic (Miranda Kaplan) tries to express her visions through dance as her mother (Suuzanne Young) translates. Unfortunately, the audience has no such aide to help decipher what is occurring on the Spotlighters' diminutive stage.
The cast of "Zanzibar" do an amiable job, several in more than one role, and there are many pleasing comic moments, particularly one scene where the Blossom family switches character and gender roles, Zoe Gallagher's Pony suddenly transformed into the cursing, middle-aged Blossom patriarch, Wally.