Enigma variations

Freiheit Makes a Stand

Written and directed by Barry Rowell
Peculiar Works Project
Vineyard Theatre at 26th St.
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

This high-concept play about the militias that dot the intellectual landscape of the far Right asks a lot -- of both its audience and players. It intermingles right-wing political pseudo-philosophy with dialogue lifted out of Shakespeare's Coriolanus.

The setting was the cabin of Billy Freiheit (Richard Sheinmel), a Randy Weaverish character who is holding off the Feds. Outside, federal agents Stone (Jacki Goldhammer) and Wood (Randy Lake) hide and watch, generally acting like Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 -- camouflaging themselves as rocks or trees. Their boss, Aufidius (the magisterial Ernest Abuba), appears from time to time, to direct the operation. Freiheit's girlfriend Eleanor (Catherine Porter) and mother (in a notable comic turn by Nomi Tichman) appear, to comment on or reenact scenes from Freiheit's life. Various scenes, mostly in blank verse, were played out overhead on TV screens.

Blank verse? What started out as a three-person adaptation called Coriolanus in a Box sort of -- under the influence of the militia on writer-director Rowell -- grew into a 90-minute conflation of Shakespeare and various sources on the extreme Right.

The parallel no doubt made crystalline sense to Rowell, but others might find it puzzling. In the original, Gaius Marcius is the hero of Rome for defeating rival city state Corioli (hence the nickname Coriolanus). But the Senate fears him; his arrogance gets him banished. He comes back to the walls of Rome arm-in-arm with his former mortal enemy, Aufidius, and only reverts to being a Roman patriot after a few words with his fire-eating mother. Aufidius kills him in a falling-out.

Making Freiheit a former Vietnam vet establishes the analogy with hero Gaius Marcius, and his self-banishment because his country's government has no further use for him makes sense, but Aufidius as a G-man is a mysterious analogy indeed.

This production also erred in its use of verse by having those forced to speak it do so in an unnaturally stressed, cartoonlike fashion. Would that the producers had hired a dialog coach along with choreographer Clare Maxwell, whose crisp work helped fill the eye while the mind was trying to follow the story. Putting verse alongside modern prose is enough of a textural stress as it is.

The cluttered, cutaway cabin (Jacob Harlow), stuck in a corner with audience on two sides, had maximum voyeuristic impact. Live music by David Lynch underscored subtly and with intelligence.

Clearly, the Vineyard made a good choice by hosting this rather peculiar work by Peculiar Works. The production showed poise, experience, and energy to burn. The script offers many fascinating sidelights into the militias but does so at the cost of a faulty (and dramatically unnecessary) concept. (Lights, David Castaneda; costumes, Karin Eckert.)

Box Score:
Writing 1
Directing 1
Acting 1
Set 2
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 2
Copyright 1996 John Chatterton

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