Damn David Hare. How can I review a show like Map of the World when I can’t even describe it? His 1983 drama is an examination of the politics (and ethics) of world hunger and international aid. Except that it isn’t: It’s an intensely staged debate instead, about the responsibilities, if any, that a novelist or journalist has to the world they write about.
Except that it’s actually a look into the violence any stage or screen adaptation inevitably does to a written work.
When, that is, it’s not a war of wits and ideals between two occasionally petty men, an older conservative and a younger liberal, for the hand of a beautiful pseudo-starlet who has offered herself as something of an ultimate prize–before it becomes a meditation on what it takes for people to actually change.
I can’t win. No matter what I focus on in this slippery little script, the cards are coming: “Dear Mr. Woods: Once more you’ve missed the point, I see….”
In an age where many playwrights experience extreme difficulty shepherding a single worthy idea on stage and off in an evening’s time, Hare segues between the four themes above–and several more for good measure–before the end of Act 2.
There’s considerable daring at work, in script and on stage, as the playwright attempts to peel away and analyze individual layers in the “compound of motives” that drive each of four characters at a UNESCO conference on world hunger and poverty in the early ’80s. For Stephen, a fledgling British journalist, is right when he says no argument is pure in this world: A mix of motives both high and venal pushes all of them.
Thus, a critique of literary aesthetics is overlaid on the self-serving representations first-world and third-world countries made of each other in the 20th century. Sexual politics–unarguably Hare’s weakest hand in this instance–directly abut journalistic ethics. All are ultimately connected, the playwright argues; all are simultaneously influencing the actions this quartet takes.
None of which makes Map of the World the easiest show to produce. By rights, such interstitial analyses should constitute a theatrical dead zone on stage. But Hare’s fully-dimensional characters rescue us from the minefield of soapboxes this work could so easily become.
If anything, Map of the World is not so much a theatrical achievement as an overachievement–which makes it a logical choice for Burning Coal’s attentions. Over the last nine years, the company has demonstrated continued interest and ability in pushing theater in this region toward greater levels of professionalism and accomplishment. While individual productions have varied in success, works including Uncle Tom’s Cabin and All the King’s Men have redefined the work this region’s independent theater is capable of producing.
Does Map of the World rise to that level of excellence? Not quite.
And it’s puzzling since, by the end, Neil Shah shows us he can effectively play Victor Mehta, an imperious Indo-British author, as a considerably older man, in scenes where he remembers the expensive folly of an earlier time.
But the verbal duel at the center of this Map doesn’t appear to take place between an older conservative dragon and a younger Stephen. Instead, both men appear to be the same age, in their mid- to late 20s, which is exactly when Hare’s rhetoric of intergenerational conflict–the “revenge of the old”–falls apart. For reasons unknown, director Roger Smart–who otherwise guides this show through a gauntlet of theatrical hazards–keeps Mehta too young until too late.
It’s an irritant, particularly given the intelligence at work in the rest of Shah’s portrayal–and the achievements elsewhere on stage. Brendan Bradley hits an enviable constellation of emotional and intellectual notes with nuance and conviction as Stephen, the English man-child who must ultimately stake and stand his ground on his ideals. As Peggy, the young woman who would be won, Gabrieal Griego is charming–and feckless–at first, before she learns the consequences of her actions.
In supporting roles, Chaunesti Lyon is knowing as a television journalist, while Holden Hansen brings a sinister unction to the role of U.N. functionary Martinson. And Robin Dorff enhances his onstage reputation once more as the jaded film director Angelis.
Another irritant? The spoiler–of all things–that artistic director Jerome Davis inserts in his otherwise memorable opening essay “My Hare Piece.” Since I wouldn’t dare reveal that plot twist here, I’ll suggest you flip past page one of the company program until after the show.
(Two Stars)The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen, Manbites Dog Theater–The most damning (and, unfortunately, appropriate) review a show like this could get? Needs editing: Far too long. Given the legendary invention–and brevity–of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists where this work originated, this production is a puzzle, since Greg Allen’s script of standup sketches runs out of novel ideas well before Ibsen runs out of plays, leaving a top-flight cast and director to mine thin comedic ore between takes that are totally unintelligible (League of Youth) or pointless (Love’s Comedy). Best moments: a loopy Burial Mound and the gothic roast of Lady Inger of Ostraat, before atmospheric (and comparatively straight) takes on John Gabriel Borkman,A Doll’s House and Peer Gynt. (Through Feb. 19.)
Byron Woods can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.