Combine all the wavelengths of the visible spectrum, and you have the color white. Throw together two independent theatrical companies as well as roller skates, puppets, masks, slides, full-frontal nudity, corporate tyranny, strolling minstrels, bellicose nationalism, xenophobia, religious fanaticism, true love, quest for identity, murder, beheading, cupcakes and existential angst, and you have White, an unconventional piece of metadrama concocted by members of both AtticRep—whose home base at Trinity University serves as the venue for the production—and The Aesthetic of Waste (“Bunch of Punks,” August 14).
According to the program, the project began when members of those troupes were assigned to provide theatrical responses to Voltaire’s Candide and Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Most of White is a madcap adaptation of Voltaire’s 18th-century satire, a mashup of his mockery of philosophical optimism—the conviction that, despite unbearable blows, this is still “the best of all possible worlds.” Like Candide, the lead character of White, who is referred to simply as “Lead,” undergoes a series of tribulations—unemployment, war, imprisonment, marital ennui—that test his belief that all works out for the best. Lead barely survives an earthquake that, in Voltaire’s book, takes place in Lisbon. However, in White the setting is Estonia; because that small Baltic nation is obscure to most Americans, the mere mention of Estonia is probably meant as a glib gag line—just as in his goofy classic Ubu Roi Alfred Jarry casts one actor as the entire Polish army.
Aside from a trial tacked on at the end, there is scant evidence of The Stranger in White. And even there, the scene echoes Franz Kafka more than Camus. Like Kafka’s Joseph K, Lead faces severe judgment for offenses that remain obscure, whereas Camus’s Meursault is explicitly placed on trial for a capital crime, the murder of an Arab on the beach.
Aside from Voltaire, the author whose spirit most pervades White is Bertolt Brecht, who insisted that drama create what he called the Alienation Effect, an estrangement from the story that keeps us from identifying with any of the characters. Those who enter the Attic Theatre before starting time will find actors rough-housing among themselves and making snide comments about the audience. “Do they expect to be entertained?” one sneers. Situations and actions in the play itself are so preposterous—characters moving about on roller skates or swivel chairs—that no one is likely to fall for the old Naturalist illusion that we are eavesdropping on real lives. Periodically, director Rick Frederick or one of the cast members interrupts the proceedings to provide commentary and ply selected members of the audience with refreshments. After the final scene ends abruptly, a voice from backstage advises: “Go home.” All these devices serve to bring home the fact that what we are watching is theatrical tomfoolery.
According to Brecht, that awareness should snap us out of the trance of make-believe and force us to think critically about the issues raised on stage. White invites us to ponder questions of vocation, nation, justice and love, but the aesthetic distance created by all the absurd mugging is so vast that it would take the Hubble telescope to get us to look past the hijinks and focus on faraway ideas that the collective authors did not think through fully. Voltaire’s version remains more sophisticated and immediate. Making the Lead’s beloved an employee of both Restoration Hardware and the Pottery Barn does not enrich the text of Candide the way the Lillian Hellman/Richard Wilbur/Leonard Bernstein musical adaptation did.
Nevertheless, White is spunky, funky and fun. The youthful cast is energetic enough to keep things moving through a single cluttered act at a breakneck pace. If no necks are broken, it is not because bodies are not swung dangerously around on stage. Seth Larson, who is artistic director of The Aesthetic of Waste, is almost constantly in motion as Lead. He and Libby Mattingsley, who plays both a nubile Westphalian noble and a voluptuous French prostitute, demonstrate remarkable courage in baring all of themselves to a group of strangers who happen to show up at the Attic Theatre. White is plucky performance art that is stronger on performance than art.
Not recommended for children or sensitive audiences
8pm Thu, Fri & Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Ruth Taylor Theater Building
Through Sept 1