In another foray into theatre, Internal Editor Finn Klauber attended the performance of three one-act plays written by playwright Edward Albee. Through the absurdity and confusion, he managed to pick up on some essential thematic substance at the core of performance.
At no point in the CU Players production of “Both Houses, a Plague” did I ever lose a deep seated sense of bewilderment. The play, an adaptation of three one-act performances penned by American playwright Edward Albee, consistently seemed to mock the dramatic structures integral to theatrical performance, juxtaposing the absurdity of plotlessness with dialectics on meaning and purpose. Though the three acts were connected theatrically by Director William Sydney (CC ’19), whether through the manipulation of theatrical space or unstated thematic links, the pure absurdity of the performance in some parts muddled the deeper meaning—if such meaning even exists.
It’s simple to recount and summarize the plot elements present in the three acts, despite this. In the first act, “The Sandbox,” Mommy, played by Ariana Busby (BC ’18), and Daddy, played by Rowan Hepps Keeney (CC ’20), set down the doddering and seemingly senile Grandma, Mommy’s mother played by Lily Whiteman (CC ’19), in an onstage sandbox. A shirtless Young Man, Spencer Tilghman (CC ’20), performs vaguely wing-like calisthenics while standing rooted in place above her, and a Musician, Olivia Loomis (BC ’19), plays a cello softly. The brunt of the act seems to concern Mommy and Daddy grappling with some unstated but critical decision, while Grandma addresses the audience and flirts with the Young Man. After a night has passed, Mommy and Daddy are spiritually rejuvenated, and they leave the decrepit Grandma in the sandbox. In opposition to the Young Man’s prior confusion over his name and purpose in this performance—a meta conflation of the dramatic performance with the reality of the play—he now leans down, realizing he is the Angel of Death, and takes Grandma away.
An unspoken figure seated on a high-seated bench while reading, present throughout “The Sandbox,” then becomes the center of focus for the next act—”The Zoo Story.” Jerry, played by Juan Guerrero (GS ’19), a manic and somewhat schizophrenic New Yorker living in a small and depressing building in the Upper West Side, runs into this silent reader and enters into a conversation. The conversation, which consists mainly of Jerry’s questions, reveals the name and identity of the reader—Peter, played by Aaron Fisher (CC ’18), an executive at a publishing house who lives on the Upper East Side with a wife, two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets. Jerry pushes the brunt of the conversation, delving into Peter’s happiness, his family, his dreams and hopes, and his sanity. Jerry, on the other hand, volunteers a wealth of information about himself, including his home life, his familial history, his sex life, and his sexuality. The apex of this conversation, however, concerns Jerry’s relationship with a reportedly vicious dog belonging to his landlord. In attempting to form a connection with a living being, Jerry tries to rectify his tension with the dog—first by friendliness, and, when that fails, then by murder. But the dog survives Jerry’s poison attempt, leaving a mutual distrust and uneasiness between the two. But, as Jerry tells the bewildered Peter, at least this is some connection. And this provides context for the entire reason Jerry even runs into Peter, as the former went to the zoo to observe how living beings interact. But this takes a turn for the worse as Jerry initiates a manic fistfight with Peter, forcing the latter to stab and kill Jerry. As he bleeds out, Jerry thanks Peter.
The final act revisits Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma—now played by Whiteman, Tilghman, and Bubsy—in their household. While waiting for an unspecified visitor, Mommy berates and emasculates Daddy, who has undergone some sort of vital operation. Grandma is the subject of Mommy and Daddy’s coldness, as they continually threaten to send for “the Van Man” to take her away. Grandma, however, offers witty retorts to the pair, criticizing Mommy’s obvious desire for Daddy’s money. She also carries a set of neatly packed boxes to the stage, concealing the contents of the containers. Finally the guest arrives, in the form of Mrs. Barker, played by Hayden Murphy (BC ’20), a socialite who is the head of Mommy’s Women’s Club. After a suggestion by Mommy that she take off her dress to get more comfortable, Mrs. Barker immediately does so—leaving Daddy with the case of the “wet and sticky.”
Yet, nobody seems to be sure of Mrs. Barker’s purpose in visiting—even Mommy and Daddy, who called for her. Furthermore, Mommy and Daddy leave the stage for minimally important reasons, yet seem to have lost all sense of their home and belongings. In their absence, Grandma intimates to Mrs. Barker that she is here because Mommy and Daddy adopted a child from her, whom they later mutilated and killed. When Mrs. Barker leaves the room as well, an unannounced Young Man, played by Keeney, comes around looking for work. In recounting their story of experiencing pains very much like the adopted child, pains which the Young Man claims to have begun after they and their twin were separated in childhood, Grandma realizes that the Young Man and the adopted child were twins. While the Young Man moves Grandma’s boxes out of the apartment, Grandma advises Mrs. Barker to introduce the Young Man to Mommy and Daddy as the newest part of their family. In the final scene—where Grandma is now fully a part of the audience, with a folding chair set up before the stage—Mommy seems to allude to incest. But Grandma ends the performance there, while everybody is still happy and content.
The radical transformations of traditional dramatic aesthetics is clearly apparent throughout the performance, but some elements of the play drag down on the performance’s overall quality. The second act, “The Zoo Story,” clearly exhibits the greatest work in the performance. The plot as constructed in this act is minimal, as it’s literally the interaction of two strangers in a secluded New York park, but the deepest of the three acts at the same time. Juan Guerrero gives life to the character of Jerry, with his fast-paced sentences, scarily friendly demeanour, and borderline schizophrenic rationalizations. And Aaron Fisher’s Peter betrays the details of his disappointingly purposeless life through his learned and bookish tone, his body language, and his realistic reactions throughout Jerry’s conversation. When Guerrero recounts the dog’s struggle with its sickness, his tearful words illustrate the depth of meaning present in a seemingly meaningless series of events. Guerrero and Fisher physically alternate in location by the end of the act, with Jerry dying on the bench while Peter shrieks in madness—an astute reversal of fortune which externalizes the internal emotional states present in each character at the beginning of the act. In this way, perhaps, Jerry has finally created an understanding with another human being; a true relationship. But maybe the absurdity of the performance only proffers a false sense of meaning as an excuse for the meaninglessness of the situation.
The other two acts were enjoyable, but much less interesting and much less visceral than “The Zoo Story.” The superficial absurdity of “The Sandbox” and “The American Dream,” for example, conceals much of the spirit of the performance. Something in these two acts denotes an attack on the “American Dream” and familial domesticity, but, again, the absurdity is just slightly over-the-top so as to annoy and desensitize the audience trying to make sense of the acts. Perhaps, though, that is the point.
Regardless, CU Players’ “Both Houses, a Plague” deserves to be seen if only for the fantastic depictions of Jerry and Peter in “The Zoo Story.” Tickets can be purchased here or at the TIC for two performances occurring tonight and tomorrow evening, both at 8:00 PM.
Theatrical photography via Bwog Staff