Playwright Randy Wayne Youngblood, who died last year at the age of 56, lived quite a life. He once toured as a roadie with the rock band Yes. He was a cofounder of Our Own Voice (OOV) Theatre Company. He was an a writer whose images, while often surreal, could land on the ear, and on the heart with extraordinary force. He was also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1984 but he never let that define him. Instead, he used his unique perspective, and his writing to define everybody else.
This week OOV company members say goodbye to their old friend one more time when Youngblood's last play, Attorney/Joker: Part Sign, closes at TheatreWorks.
Youngblood's funny, quirky script is patched together from pieces of 70's and 80's-era song lyrics, parts of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and bits of the old vampire soap opera Dark Shadows. Some scenes are structured entirely around the lyrics of the Eagles 'Hotel California." Only, unlike the Eagles, the scenes don't suck.
Attorney/Joker: Part Sign is an occasionally confounding patchwork of ideas relating pop culture to identity.Director/adaptor Alex Skitolsky, who is no stranger to Youngblood's writing, has done an amazing job navigating the dense language, and finding something like a narrative. It's also clear that the cast— a who's who of OOV alum— really has its heart in this one.
I sometimes caution that OOV's work may not be for everybody, which isn't true at all. But I want audiences— especially audiences brave enough to sample new and experimental work— to have reasonable expectations. This is no-budget theater created by a community of artists with a shared vision, and a drive to make artistically progressive, socially responsible work. It's not about slick, polished performances, or elaborate sets and costumes. But even if you're more of a mainstream theatergoer, if you open yourself up to the unexpected, the unexpected is exactly what OOV delivers.
The lingering image from Attorney/Joker: Part Sign, for me, comes from a song performed by Zak Baker of the band Zigadoo Money Clips. "The garden is tremendous," he sings. As tended by Youngblood, and his OOV colleagues, it certainly has been.
"This is what we have learned: Face to face conversations create hope for the one who talks and for the ones who listen."
I think it’s time to add a new word to the dictionary: Beiged. Mr. Webster should define it as anything, but especially something reasonably exotic, made to seem boring and bland because of too much tan-colored pigment. For example: “Tribes is one of the most daring plays to come down the pike in years but it was completely beiged by that monolithically tan, badly lit set.
Obviously, Nina Raine’s dark-edged comedy has some specific technical requirements. Surtitles are projected so hearing audience members can follow along when deaf characters converse in sign language. It’s an appropriately operatic conceit but there had to be a way to manage it without throwing up a tall, solid, oppressively khaki-colored wall that makes the space seem so shallow and the work feel so flat.
Tribes has deaf characters. It is not a "deaf" play. It is also a study, not a story, considering the many ways individuals and groups exchange information. We’re introduced to a smart, relentlessly combative, sometimes outright mean family of adults who are all occupying the same house for the first time since the children started leaving for college. The father (Barclay Roberts) is an academic and author of argumentative books. He’s learning Japanese, but he won’t insult his son’s intelligence by learning sign-language. The mother (Irene Crist) is writing a detective novel set around a dissolving marriage.
“I don't know who's done the murder yet. I'm going to decide at the end and then put all the clues in," mother says, in one of the play’s more wantonly self-conscious moments.
The children are all struggling to define themselves outside the family. Daughter Ruth (Morgan Howard) is an aspiring opera singer piecing together a career performing in pubs. Only she’s been listening to herself lately, and that may not be a good thing. The oldest son, Daniel (Cameron Reeves), is a student writing his thesis about how language doesn’t determine meaning. He’s mentally ill and sometimes turns up the radio to drown out the voices he hears in his head. Billy's the youngest. He's been deaf from birth. He’s also an expert lip reader, raised by his opinionated father, to believe he’s no different than anybody else.
As one might imagine in a play called Tribes, conflict arises when an outsider enters the picture. Billy begins to interact with organized deaf culture and falls in love with Sylvia, who was born with normal hearing into a deaf family. She is also losing her hearing and descending into a silence that she describes as being much noisier than she ever could have imagined. Act one closes with the inevitable gladiatorial dinner party scene where she meets Billy’s family and is bloodied up from “hello.”
Odd, smug, and compulsively argumentative families are almost a cliche. We’ve seen this dynamic depicted countless times in stories by J.D. Salinger, in plays by Kaufman & Hart, and films by Wes Anderson. We’ve even seen it reflected in the macabre satire of The Addams Family. Raine’s sometimes jarring, immensely resonant script digs deep into this tradition, while venturing into new, exciting, and relatively uncharted territory. Circuit Playhouse's finely acted production is never all it might be, but it's never too far off the mark either.
I blame the beige.
“A person commits an offense who intentionally carries an explosive, explosive weapon, permanently disabled firearm, hoax device, imitation firearm, machete, or sword openly within one hundred fifty feet (150′) of the real property that comprises the grounds or facilities of a public or private preschool, elementary school, middle school, or secondary school."That would seem to put a lot of classical performance off limits. Not to mention West Side Story.
"Still thinking about the bold choice of Threepenny Theatre Company to produce Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. (To the best of my memory, the last production of this American classic in Memphis was at U of M in the 1970's). In 1995 I became immersed in O'Neill's work as I was invited by the American Embassy in Paris to give a lecture tour to Universities in eight cities in France regarding O'Neill's play, Strange Interlude. The reception and deep appreciation of O'Neill I found there had lasting effect on my Script Analysis classes at U of M. (As many former grad and undergrad students know I often had folks engaged in study of Long Day's Journey Into Night long into the midnight hour!) So for all those reasons I especially looked forward to seeing this production at TheatreWorks. I was not alone. The audience on opening night (Friday, February 13th) was wholly present—a spontaneous and immediate standing ovation at the end of the show. All of us in unison so appreciative of Threepenny’s commitment to producing such a demanding play and so grateful for the rich and admirable performances we had just experienced. Accolades to Bill, Christina, Dylan, Gabe, and Jillian! Thank you and Matt for a wonderful evening at the theatre!"