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Power Plays

Performance Workshop Theatre Company Mounts Two Anti-War Plays in an Effort to Provoke Debate About Violence, Power, and Oppression

War On War: (from left) Ira L. Gamerman and Paul Baron come to grips in the Performance Workshop Theatre's version of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Aria Da Capo."

By David Morley | Posted 10/13/2004

Performance Workshop Theatre Company performs “Aria da Capo” and “One for the Road” from Oct. 15 through Nov 7 at 28 E. Ostend St. Call (410) 659-7830 for more information.

Colorful frills of crepe paper, high-backed chairs, crisp costuming, performers running through their lines. It could be the set of a presidential debate, in the last minutes before the candidates appear before an audience of millions. But this is the Performance Workshop Theatre Company, where five players are preparing for a very different kind of political event, and their only audiences will be those intimate crowds that can fit in Performance Workshop’s 28-seat theater in South Baltimore over the next month.

This weekend, Performance Workshop opens two one-acts that, in some ways, seem as different from one another as left and right. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Aria da Capo” is a harlequinade, an almost absurd script written in 1919 on the heels of World War I, while Harold Pinter’s mid-1980s “One for the Road” is a much grittier tale of government oppression, based on the playwright’s visit to Turkey. Both are little-known scripts by otherwise well-known authors, but they are diametric opposites in terms of their execution. Millay’s piece, full of rich language and imagery, plays out before a dazzlingly colorful backdrop, while Pinter’s script, set on a drab, dark stage, is marked by razor-sharp, staccato dialogue. To put these two on the same bill might seem strange were it not for their shared agenda—an opposition to war in all its forms. And obscure as they might be, their directors believe they are plays whose time has come.

“There is a definite connection to circumstances in the world now and our decision to bring these plays to the public,” says Marc Horwitz, co-founder of Performance Workshop and director of “Aria da Capo.” (His fellow co-founder, Marlyn Robinson, is directing “One for the Road.”) “The issues that the playwrights raise are very real, very current, very important. We felt that this was an appropriate time for these plays to be seen.”

But similar messages aside, the plays are by no means interchangeable, he notes. There are, for starters, stark stylistic differences between the two. “‘Aria’ is in the style of a parable, while ‘One for the Road’ is in the style of a documentary,” Horwitz points out.

Indeed, “Aria da Capo” is a strange, abstract bit of stagecraft, the first play by a writer better known for her poetry. “Aria” is rife with flowery language, and its plot line mimics the musical form that is the play’s namesake: The story is circular, beginning with two characters, Columbine and Pierrot, who we first see dining on macaroons amid a colorful, symbol-laden set. Then two additional players—Corydon and Thyrsis—enter to perform a play within the play, ostensibly a dramatized fight over the distribution of water for a flock of sheep. They do battle, Corydon poisons Thyrsis, and then Pierrot and Columbine re-enter to resume the same banal conversation they were having at the start, about eating macaroons. They have turned a blind eye to the violence, Millay suggests, and everyone involved is worse off for it.

“You would have to call it her protest against war,” says Robinson, who reads it as a clear response to the absurdity of World War I. But director Horwitz feels that the achievements of Millay’s play are stylistic as well as political, and he can only sum up the experience of watching it using flowery language himself. “The effect of ‘Aria da Capo’ is like biting into a truffle and having it explode in your mouth,” he says. “The look and sense of ‘Aria da Capo’ is almost a circus environment. It has the fantastic colors and moods of a fantasy.” While fantastic, he observes, there is still a decided, if understated, darkness to the script, which only makes its lighter elements seem all the more ironic.

Harold Pinter’s “One for the Road” from 1984, meanwhile, is equally understated, but here the subtlety comes in what is not revealed in the play’s sparse, spare dialogue. Nicholas, a government interrogator in an undisclosed country, interviews Victor and Gila—a husband and wife—to find out why their son Nicky insulted some soldiers on the street. Though no explicit violence is written into the script, it becomes clear soon enough, as the interrogator interviews the family members about each other, that Gila has been taken away, raped, and murdered. Victor eventually breaks down under the questioning, and then torture, only to be offered a drink “for the road” and the promise of some company from prostitutes. (“Their daddies are in our business,” the interrogator intones at one point, “which is, I remind you, to keep the world clean for God.”) Finally, Victor is free to leave, he is told, but to viewers it’s clear that he’ll be leaving without a family, and indeed not free at all.

For Horwitz, Pinter’s piece is as much about war as Millay’s play—its characters seeming like different kinds of casualties in a government’s brutal crusade to stay in power. He points out that “One for the Road” was written amid the final, feverish years of the Cold War and 35 years after the Geneva Conventions laid down rules for the treatment of prisoners, when states were honor-bound to act humanely. “What Pinter is addressing,” Horwitz says, “is what occurs after the Geneva Conventions are established. There are limits, but what really happens?”

Both “Aria da Capo” and “One for the Road” feature largely the same players, including Horwitz himself, a Shakespearean-trained actor who often performs in Performance Workshop productions, along with double-appearances by local actors Teresa Altoz and Jesse Tallyen. This dual casting establishes yet another parallel between the two seemingly dissimilar plays that Robinson and Horwitz believe form, when seen together, a cogent and undeniable anti-war message.

“[Millay and Pinter] are both two brilliant and eloquent commentators on the human condition, both with what makes it noble and not,” Robinson says. The plays attest to the fact, she adds, that Americans “are not as innocent as we may have been—or thought we were—in the past.”

Though the scripts themselves are rarely performed, the fact that Horwitz and Robinson have chosen to produce them is hardly out of the ordinary for the Performance Workshop players, who have never shied away from issue-driven drama; in recent years, they have mounted plays like The Puppetmaster of Lodz, Gilles Segal’s play about a Holocaust survivor, and short pieces by strident socialist playwright Bertold Brecht. And neither Horwitz nor Robinson has any qualms about their theater serving as a means for political debate. They even approached Amnesty International to help sponsor its production of “One for the Road,” and the human-rights group has agreed to provide speakers for Sunday discussions about war atrocities after its matinée performances.

In the end, Horwitz and Robinson expect that, taken as a whole, the paired productions will make for some compelling, but pleasingly subtle, meditations about not just wars overseas but also the treatment of citizens at home. “Some of the things that are of concern today is whether we’ve granted permission to our representatives to use power which could endanger our civil rights,” Robinson says. “The question is, what are we voting for?” And she and Horwitz both believe that the scripts, in their complexity, manage not to be heavy-handed or even overly left-leaning. “The plays don’t point fingers,” Robinson says. “We just see what [the characters’] actions are.”

One of the unique abilities of the stage, he concludes, is its knack for humanizing otherwise abstract issues, which can make for a powerful experience, no matter what your political leanings. “There’s so much going on in the world...there’s a tendency to go into information overload. But when you see something like [these plays] playing out just a few feet in front of you, and you can hear a person breathe, and you can hear a person not breathe, it’s like thunder. It would be very difficult for someone not to be moved by it.”

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