Structurally very compelling, Carnival Round the Central Figure by playwright Diana Amsterdam whisks the audience away on a carousel ride, round and round, always round the Central Figure, of course. In the manner in which, at turns, it exhilarates and invites trepidation and dizziness, it is much like an actual carnival ride, except this ride is the ride of your life—anyone’s and everyone’s which all end at the same simple and inevitable conclusion: death. This Carnival then, examines the process of death and dying in the US and our society’s relationship to everyone’s final destination.
For this theatrical jaunt, we accompany Sheila (Lizzie Calogero) and Paul (Michael Patrick Gaffney), the eponymous Central Figure, caked in white face paint, already as ghastly as a ghost. As theatre-goers file into the performance space, Paul is already on stage, supine in a hospital bed twitching and moaning inaudibly. The only sounds are the familiar notes of carnival music, played on a loop. From the start, Symmetry Theatre’s production excels at creating and sustaining a carnivalesque absurdist atmosphere for the play. Not an easy work to stage, Carnival’s direction by Symmetry company member Chloe Bronzan and cast performances are strong. The audience is treated to some stand-out actors.
The play’s initial scene gives a resolute tip of the hat to Ionesco, the absurdist classic The Bald Soprano comes to mind in Shelia’s mired denial and her hyper-obsessive discussion of the quotidian. The satire in these scenes really stings even as it elicits laughs. As an aside, poor Sheila’s wardrobe is fantastic; she is shabby and silly in neon orange sneakers, jeans with elastic at the cuffs and a fuchsia and teal get-up on top. However, Calogero’s solid showing prevents this character from devolving to caricature.
Along with vibrant casting, the production also employs innovative techniques such as breaching the 4th wall, and non-linear/ not-quite-narrative storytelling— more circular and repetitive than Aristotelian, befitting a slightly madcap and macabre merry-go-round. For some, the repetition as a device may be overmuch, but for me it plays as a metaphorical echo of the disorientating shock and trauma that death often brings.
The play features a cycle of scenes between the unsinkable Velina Brown—whose performance as Maryanne was so excellent I’m moved in the most complimentary way to call her a scene-stealer— and Marissa Keltie seated in the audience, transforming all of us theater-goers into fellow participants of a lecture-style class. The actors had engaging rapport. In fact, although the audience I was a part of was relatively small (it was a matinee), we were a spirited bunch and in scenes like these some in attendance were moved to call out to the actors. Given the gravity of the subject matter, I think this level of audience response was a considerable feat.
Perhaps the play is so evocative because it hits home in its scrutiny of US society’s death-phobia and how it inhibits our human capacity to connect with those we cherish most during their times of transition and our overall lack of deep connectedness to life in general. One song from the play’s soundtrack advises the audience to “live life as though you are going to die, because you are”.
Symmetry’s staging uses music throughout, with some live singing and some pre-recorded audio. The live music is better and is mostly supplied by a sardonically amusing take on a Greek Choir featuring Calogero, Brown and the great El Beh as gospel choir singers who back up Michael Gene Sullivan’s Preacher. Sullivan’s charismatic performance was also first-rate and Beh, who I initially saw in the ensemble of the San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson singing, dancing and playing a full size electric cello shined as a gospel gal and the creepy vein-draining and provocative Nurse.
Amsterdam’s text does contain some incisive satire. Beh’s Nurse ritually milks the Central Figure’s vein while coyly cooing things like, “come on baby, just one more drop;” we live in a society with a medical system that does indeed bleed many of us dry. However, I wish the work went further in exploring the socio-economic dynamics and inequalities of the this system, which I tend to refer to as the medical industrial complex— it is a profit driven enterprise after all. More overtly embattled than ever due to the ensuing debate over Obamacare, medicine in this country is inextricably entangled with insurance companies, behemoth biotechs, and big phama whose CEO’s occupy prominent positions on hospital boards and whose board members hold influential staff positions at major hospitals. Simultaneously, health outcomes in African American, Latino/a, Native American, LBGT and other marginalized communities lag disturbingly behind their white, straight counterparts. Amsterdam’s critical gaze is not in this direction. Instead, she chooses to make matters metaphysical and looks to Christian hegemony’s chokehold on death which to me is well worn territory. However, the play often offers up this amusing commentary in three-part harmony, a crowd-pleasing nice touch. Could Symmetry Theatre’s approach to the text more deeply explored these other dynamics? Perhaps. I would have liked to have seen that.
Nonetheless, Carnival Round the Central Figure, is a solid and gutsy production (and when I say gutsy I mean it quite literally, as projectile vomit does fly—oh yes!). Alas readers, with this review late to (cyber) press, you will not be able to see it for yourself. The play’s run ended on December 1st. But, your chances to see more great work from Symmetry Theatre are far from dead and gone, you have but to await their 2014 season. Check their website for upcoming productions.