Hunter Intro to Theatre

All About 'Cleave' or Don’t Lose Your Head

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      TJ McG

      Tim McGrath                                                                                                              9 March 2015

      All About <i>Cleave </i>or Don’t Lose Your Head


      At Hunter’s Frederick Loewe Theater in the opening scene of the Hunter MFA Playwrights Festival 2015 production <i>Cleave</i>. written by Daniel McCoy and directed by Alex Correia, the characters gaze out at the night sky and observe the constellation, Hydra. The Hydra references the classical monster of many heads and its indestructible reptilian nature, if one head get chopped two more take its place. The decapitation and reattachment metaphor runs through this production. While the writer  reaches for satire approaching absurdity, this metaphor gets a little calloused by the end.

      Starting with title the author throws us a curveball. Cleave is a word known as a contranym which refers to words that have opposite meanings depending on the context. Cleave can mean to adhere or to separate. What is he getting at? Let’s see.

      Overall the plot involves a family, of father, mother, and adolescent daughter. The family reels from  the loss of the dad.  It’s his death, with the circumstances of decapitation in a car accident, which propel the action, as the teenage daughter cannot accept the loss. She becomes deranged around this even as far keeping her dad’s cleaved noggin in a cooler next to her bed, changing the ice regularly. Ha. Not kidding. Jordan, the mother, played by Yaribel Castillo re-couples with a new beau, Joe, played by David Lanson David Lanson. This creates great conflict between her and her daughter, Julia, played by Myra Ray Thibault. Herein lies the dramatic tension. This tension also bleeds, nearly literally,  into Julia’s dream-life where the scenes use the French Revolution as backround.

      I feel blessed to be able to refer to myself as a gay man of a certain age. I’ve lived long enough to see the cyclical nature of many things( e.g fashion:combat boots or cuisine: comfort food, to name just a few.) But for my purposes here, as a regular theater-goer, I consider in particular stage works such as <i>The Normal Heart</i> and<i> Angels in America </i>both in recent revivals. For myself the restaging of these two drama<i>s </i>elicited a near speechless poignancy. Over time one see revivals of classics such as <i>Oklahoma or Showboat</i> and “neo-classics”, such as<i> Hedwig and the Angry Inch</i> or any Mamet’s of Sondheim’s oeuvre. In the arc of a lifetime it’s interesting to see trends but it’s more interesting to observe something new which becomes a classic.

      Where am I going with this? By virtue of age I’ve learned to give reappraisal with some degree of subjectivity but under the rubric ‘does this work seem dated or is it timeless?’ Alongside returning or maybe repurposed works goes the recycling of metaphors, tropes, and or language. In <i>Cleave</i> we get the oft-used backdrop of the French Revolution and with that the dominant image of the play, the guillotine. Speaking of recycled memes interestingly the guillotine has come up in another class of mine through the James Baldwin novel, <i>Giovanni’s Room</i>. Here it’s used in recurrent episodic dream sequences which end up being nearly half of the running time of the show. But the overall metaphor of decapitation runs through the whole production, starting with the Hydra reference, then the head severing of a man and cat through accidents, and on to the guillotine, again it’s a bit heavy-handed. People are losing their heads literally and figuratively all over the course of the production.

      As a rule of thumb for myself whenever I see a theater performance, at various logical points (between scenes or acts etc) throughout the production, I glance around the theater to see how many people might be dozing or outright comatose. One aspect of this might be the the respective dates of birth of the audience members but this usually gives a reasonable litmus test in terms of enjoyment or at least satisfaction. Granted I have my own reaction but I like to test the water as it were. On that night the audience kept their somnolence in check so I didn’t see or hear anyone snoring.

      Except for a very short section at the start the play held my attention and while not completely captivating I found it thought provoking. The actors are well cast and perform competently but the actor, Gavin Starr Kendall playing a dual role of Sanson and the executioner in the dream sequences, being a consummate pro. Within his dual role he moves fluidly and with great facility.

      In the black box of the Loewe theater the necessarily minimal set and lighting offer a reasonable suspension of disbelief and show good stagecraft in doing more with less, i.e. budget. Again in the category of more with less, the costume dept, admirably acquits itself with even a few quick change occurrences.

      All-in-all <i>Cleave </i>gets two thumbs from this writer. For a student production I have to say “bravo.”


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