Let me tell you a story—not too many months ago, a creative writing professor gave me some “truth hurts, kiddo,” criticism. He explained that my latest story was not unlike a brief internment at an “El Salvadoran torture camp” and that it “did nothing…for [him].” I, an individual particularly accustomed to unsavory personal comparison, asked why. He replied, to quote roughly, “This story is populated with metaphors, not people.” He was right. A metaphor, no matter how thought-provoking or sophisticated, is never an adequate or appropriate substitute for character in a novel or, for that matter, in a play.
“The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek” is overrun with screaming, prancing, sexually-aroused metaphors, all vying for your attention, like attention-starved monkeys at a Soviet zoo. When watching, I had the creeping suspicion that I’d stumbled upon not a play but a poetry reading that has been high-jacked by intelligent teenagers armed with angst, period costumes and a thesaurus. This makes a little more sense (but gives no excuse) considering the playwright, Naomi Wallace, has published two volumes of poetry in addition to her successful plays. The language is beautiful. Many of the images channeled through the characters have stayed with me two days later—“a head full of black water” being one and then something about potatoes sucking down air whilst they sit a box. Nice.
Problem is, I went to see a play—not a poetry reading. I have nothing against poetic language in plays (props to my boy Bill Shakespeare of Avon). I have no problem with plays being consciously arty and deliberately resistant to theatrical convention. Ms. Wallace, however, not only de-values the plot by telling the story backwards, she also undermines the characters by giving them ridiculous lines that never once invite personal investment in the figures’ plight as human beings.
Ted Hall did an amazing job playing Chas Weaver, a jail warden fond of animal mimicry and being insane all-the-damn-time. But I didn’t care about Chas because he wasn’t anything more than a hyper-styled vehicle for Wallace’s “artistic statements,” which were fed to the audience to figure out and appreciate. And I mean this very literally. Chas Weaver’s shtick was yelling “WHAT AM I?” and doing a crazy dance which then the protagonist, along with the audience, had to figure out what this dramatic Rorschach meant. One time I thought Chas was a komodo dragon with his intestines on fire. Turns out, he was a “soul.” Um…ok.
If the message behind all these crafted symbols was revelatory, or even refreshing, I’d absolve the play for its lack of adequate character development and its super artsy finials that stick out everywhere (like the unexplained scene in the beginning involving shadow puppets, or the huge broken plate at center stage). Alas, the message neither revelatory nor refreshing. Instead, Ms. Wallace delivers such astonishing insights as “You must kill the one you love” and “Men-need-to-be-touched-so-please-touch-them.” Moreover, these revelations are delivered with all the subtlety of a male character screaming “TOUCH ME! TOOOOOUUUUUCH ME!” So, wait a minute, Playwright Wallace, the character wants to be—and correct me if I’m too thick—touched? Why don’t you just drape the stage in a huge banner that says: “This Play is About Desolation, Loneliness and Post-Modern Estrangement from Traditional Values”? That way, I could read the banner in two seconds and spend the rest of the time watching “Simpsons” DVDs in my underwear.
I realize I’ve harped on the play and not the production. The acting was really fairly good, if the written characters hadn’t been crippled by intended profundity. Annie Preis was believable as a fretful mother scarred by the cruel tyrant Capitalism. Amy Widdowson and Mr. Hall were clearly having a good time chewing up the stage. Jeff Brown and Rob Grant also seemed comfortable, if not a little mystified. The staging was spare but tastefully minimalist. I found favor with the cho-cho train sounds that played during the frequent dramatic blackouts. CHO! CHO!
Considering the material, I don’t know if I agreed with director Ruby Pan’s decision to continually ratchet-up the dramatic intensity from the first scene onward. As they say at Westminster Choir College, if you keep sing higher and higher, you’re bound to go off-key eventually. In that respect, “Trestle”’s a bit like the “Passion,” where critics questioned how much bloodshed any audience could endure before impact is sacrificed to over-kill. Similarly, with this play one wonders how many psychic crises shouted from the stage in flowery language an audience can endure before they whisper to themselves: “This is supremely ridiculous!” Ms. Pan thought the audience had a miraculously high level of tolerance for unlovable characters’ existential bitching. Well, I, for one, do not.