[19 January 2009]
Playwright Eugene O’Neill’s gift to American Theater is the Realism tradition, a format first associated with the likes of Ibsen and Chekhov. To present Realism in art form, the artist must be convinced of perpetual corruption, despair and disillusionment of the human existence. A dreadful religion to stake faith in, but if we are to absorb the news reports of the greed, corruption, and all-around societal mayhem that dogs us every second of our 24-hour news cycle, then O’Neill and his mentors had “it” just about right.
As the collective memory of every generation dies out, the new birth of collective amnesia takes root; a new generation repeats the cycle of avarice, neglect, emotional rot – the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse always on mount. One may get a little love, but don’t bet the family farm on love, as it will be sold off at the foreclosure auction.
Brazil’s Companhia Triptal troupe delivers Zona de Guerra to the Goodman Theater’s “A Global Exploration” Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century”. The Spanish translation of its native English, it’s the same story of paranoia mixed in with a heap of xenophobia and unbridled ladder climbing. A blighted ship containing an equally blighted crew sails the landmine and enemy sub-filled waters of World War I. Everyone knows their place, including Davis, the lowest of the lowly members.
A literal rugrat, Davis subsists off the crumbs that are swept off the dining table and onto the cabin floor. But Davis has ambition, and his chance comes in the form of a new crew member that holds no kindredness with any of the crew. Is he a German spy? Could this “Smith” actually be “Schmidt”, sent by the Kaiser to eliminate the good people? Not a laughable idea if one considers the millions that pour into American hamlets in partnership with a Homeland Security department that assures its citizens that the “World’s Largest Donut” sculpture will remain safe from harm in perpetuity.
Davis rises from his gristle on the floor and moves into the executive office, passing along a fake paranoia to his formerly reasonable crewmates. The paranoia thickens, twists and boils into a stew of malfeasance, and when that stew is served, the choke of its ingredients resonates into our 24-hour news cycle of current events. We come to realize how Blackwater and Halliburton can and always will find willing recruits.
At the time O’Neill authored In the Zone, there was Germany’s Kaiser decimating young soldiers with mustard gas, American organized crime providing an economy for the neglected ethnic masses, and the Ku Klux Clan enjoying a high moral ground and the nation’s good graces. The 21st century gets Bush & Cheney, Bernie Madoff, bank failures, water torture and organized crime providing economy for the neglected ethnic masses.
Davis decidedly takes his leave from floorboards buffed with the soaps of perpetual isolation and impoverishment, and leaves behind the grinding crush of being the lowest in the lowest caste system by creating an on-board Survivor-type indictment of the not well-known shipmate. That Davis the imbecile, an illiterate that gets his moderately more learned shipmates to violate the “stranger’s” privacy, justifying the theft and seizure of property using the eternal bromide of “national security” is testament that we’d all rather believe the ringing in our heads than the evidence in front of us – Who ya’ gonna believe, your eyes or me?
An unseen object striking the boat can no longer be an errant piece of driftwood, with the stranger present it becomes the Kaiser’s calling card of first strike and certain death to all good people. Stolen property transmogrifies from simple love letters into German U-boat movements that place the motley crew in immediate danger. The doomed passenger “Smith” rechristened as “Schmidt” to sanction the actions of those that trespass against him.
Zona de Guerra succeeds as an emotional toll and a reek of familiarity with its audience, but the attempt to translate for an English-speaking audience suffers. The actors give their all and might in every realm of the senses in delivering this tale of moral destitution, yet those of us needing to invest our emotion into this production will stammer as we only half-successfully grasp I’d have preferred a narrator at opening giving an overview and letting the stage play. After all, man’s inhumanity to man needs no translation.