Patriarchy Run Rampant: A WELCOME GUEST at Contemporary American Theater Festival
Michael Weller's new play, A Welcome Guest, now premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, is transparently a critique of patriarchy. That is not what one might expect from reading an interview with Weller in the program, where he describes the play's origin; there he says it's an outgrowth of thoughts about Israel and Palestine, which morphed into a tale of "someone taking over someone else's land." But in practice, the fight is gender-specific. The only characters in the show who care about territory are the men. They are absurdly obsessed with scriptures and tribes, and willing to risk a local version of Armageddon to prevail in their respective claims. The semi-sensible ones are the women.
At the start, the Brown clan (pictured above), a washed-up former Christian rock singer turned druggie gone semi-straight named McMoley (Lou Sumrall) and his strange derelict family, are inhabiting part of an abandoned factory under an arrangement with the local government, and subsisting by stripping the metal out of the structure and selling it for scrap. Then the government, represented by its functionary Lucius (Michael Rogers), brings in Shimeus (Wade McCollum), a derelict of another sort, whimpering and traumatized by an arson that killed everyone else in his family. Lucius orders the Browns to harbor Shimeus as a guest. Almost immediately, however, Shimeus stops whimpering, and, more importantly, stops behaving like a guest, and more like an invader - well maybe not a declared invader but a lot like a space alien whose intentions toward neighbors aren't entirely clear but don't seem encouraging, a la the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Shimeus is clearly the smartest character (not that any of the Browns are the sharpest tools in the shed), endowed with a talent for escaping the consequences of his arrogance and aggressiveness. He is relentless, constantly expanding and fortifying his share of the space on the stage, enslaving the dim shoplifting son Frizzby (Reece Santos), coopting daughter Zazu (Sarah Sun Park), besting an attempt by mother Shanana (Kate Udall) to poison him, and challenging paterfamilias McMoley to a potentially mutually lethal contest of wills.
Driving both McMoley and Shimeus are scriptures and sexism. McMoley hearkens to the old-time Christian religion, while Shimeus regards himself as an atavar of Shimeus the First, author of the divine Book of Shimeus. Of course, like Christian scripture, the Book of Shimeus is open to interpretation, but Shimeus chooses an interpretation that legitimates and maximizes his claim on the Brown leasehold. And both McMoley and Shimeus try to marginalize or subjugate Zazu and Shanana. The serious business, McMoley keeps insisting without demur by Shimeus, is "between men" - even though it is obvious neither of the women take him seriously, and the commonsense solutions to the standoff come only from the women. Scriptures, on the other hand, supposedly deal in non-negotiable absolutes, not compromise or common sense. Even when a textual ambiguity emerges in the Book of Shimeus that should lead to shared hegemony between the sides, the real patriarchal agendas of the leaders, for which scripture was always only a rationalization and justification, make compromise impossible.
The play is subtitled A Psychotic Fairy Tale, which I'm not sure is a fortunate monicker. Not only are there no fairies; there is no magic, albeit there are some special effects (probably attributable to scenic designer Jesse Dreikosen and technical director Jared Sorenson) that seem almost magical. The characters are not stand-ins for members of a child's family of origin, as Bruno Bettelheim taught Stephen Sondheim and thus the rest of us to anticipate in true fairy tales. And the wackiness evident in the description above does not rise to level of psychosis, either; this is not a fever dream like for instance the truly psychotic works of Sarah Kane. Instead, this seems like a queasy meditation on the state of our civilization, present and forthcoming. As such, it seems mostly on point, particularly in these times, where the guardrails that prevent our society from growing barbaric are being systematically dismantled.
Weller has stated that his approach in this play was chosen partly in reaction to what he perceived was the failure of Arturo Ui, Brecht's allegory of the rise of Hitler, to capture the subject. (Washington audiences, incidentally, can see a very good revival for a few more days courtesy of Scena Theatre.) And I think that the story of the Israelis and the Palestinians would be just as challenging to dramatize in directly allegorical fashion. Instead, Weller provides something broader. While this play could reasonably be read to provide a critique of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, it is in no way tethered to that situation, but extends much further. That is a good thing.
Weller has also referred to the play as "surreal slapstick." There I think he is more on the mark, though at least in this staging the slapstick is not extreme. Instead, the comedy is primarily verbal. To choose but one example, here is the good-natured sexism of McMoley, as he tries to pay compliments to first his daughter, then his wife:
Whereas you - my jewel, my treasure chest - yours is the gift of allurance; you're a vessel of fertility who will one day attract a god-fearing young man to fill you with children who continue the Brown bloodline. And standing high is the most perfect angel of all. Look how she glows...! If I could shrink her down to Christmas- ornament-size I'd put her on top of that tree and just stare at her through the holiday season.
It's funny, but it also conveys in a few strokes how patriarchal rhetoric tends to be couched in pompously and inarticulately delivered clichés, betraying with every word how little thought is given to the hearers' sensibilities. Which is very much the point.
Speaking of points, it needs to be said that the themes and structure of the play came across a lot more clearly on the page than in this performance. I'm not exactly sure why this was, but I know from conversations with other audience members that I was not alone in finding the show as experienced somewhat chaotic. The script was not released until after I'd seen the show and had a chance to reflect on it. Looking back now with the additional aid of the script, the structure and meaning of the play seem clear enough, but during the performance they just didn't. The problem may simply have been the funhouse quality of the production, which threw a lot of surprising visual and verbal material at the audience without giving us context to orient ourselves. The denouement also did not help much, either, as what looked like an impending catastrophe for the characters was abandoned so that the cast could, as themselves, not their characters, burst into song, a song that teased us on what had been about to happen without making it clear whether or not what the audience had been led to fear had come to pass.
Still, this play is definitely a good way to spend 135 minutes. We should all take a trip to the funhouse from time to time, even if we do find ourselves a bit disoriented. And without this particular trip, we would miss some wonderful performances, led by Kate Udall (whom Festival-goers will remember pleasurably for her one-woman turn in Allison Gregory's Wild Horses a couple of seasons ago) as the preternaturally cheery Shananana whose loss of marbles is only partial, Lou Sumrall as the bluff cliché machine and macho chest-beater McMoley, and Wade McCollum, who as Shimeus the guest manages to evince a menace that is at once cheerful, sneaky, slightly fey, and a force of nature.
A Welcome Guest, by Michael Weller, directed by Ed Herendeen, presented through July 28 as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Marinoff Theater, 62 W. Campus Drive, on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $57-$67, at www.catf.org or 304/876-3473 | 800/999-2283. Adult language, crude behavior.
Photo credit: Seth Freeman.