Friday, April 16, 2010

Eve Ensler's Necessary Targets at Subversive Theatre

Some days I do things which are plainly absurd. Today I bicycled down to the Niagara River to watch the kickoff event of "Boom Days." Boom Days are some sort of new Buffalo identity exercise, relating to the strange fact that each spring there comes a day when the "ice boom" is removed from the head end of the Niagara River.

The boom is placed to keep ice from clogging water intakes for power production from the drop down the same escarpment which provides the famous Falls. Enough water flows down this river to shrink our puny aspirations to the scale of that big red ball they dropped off the Peace Bridge.

There are mixed feelings about the overall beneficence of this boom, and so this is a kind of making lemonade when life hands you lemons thing. You can see the family resemblance to Buffalo wings. You can see the reachy punning. As if we were about to soar. As if these are boom times for Buffalo. As if our falling were only symbolic; yet another Blizzard Ball, in red, follow it down and drink and be merry.

I'd thought I would be joining some sort of crowd, but instead I found myself practically solo on the scene. A beautiful day, and I had the pedestrian-friendly breakwater which divides the river from the canal almost to myself.

I'd first scouted out the riverfront and determined that there wouldn't be any observers from the Olmstead Park, nor from the Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse at the Rowing Club. I'd pretty much decided that the whole thing was another mixup on my part until I saw the big red  Edward M. Cotter fireboat coming down the canal alongside the River. Then sure enough, there was the big red ball ready to be tipped over the edge. A lot of fuss just for me, don't you think?

That's about how absurd the situation was, presented by Eve Ensler's play, Necessary Targets staged at Subversive Theatre this month. American professionals credentialed and documented  in traumatic stress disorders get sent to Bosnia after the genocide, as if they could help. You don't realize until the moment the characters do how surprisingly absurd this premise is. As absurd as a ball drop event which nobody attends. You want to help. You want to participate, and you find yourself alone and unequipped.

A prominent and well published therapist is honored to be selected by the President. A younger counterpart is glad to find a way to escape her personal horrors, which we learn are ever present in the flashback of sleep when she stays home. The women they meet in Bosnia have lived through things so utterly unthinkable from the perspective of an upscale psychology practice Stateside - or even from that of  the shattered lives that practice helps - that it seems absurd to imagine that there could be any human contact across the divide. Suddenly absurd. These well-meaning travelers both find themselves over their heads. As if in a rapids heading for a falls.

Even the horrors of warfare can't compare to the horrors of atrocities committed by people just like us. Who can imagine neighbors gone wild with machetes and rape? In warfare, all the players are geared up for atrocity. The civilians learn quickly to expect it. But neighbors to neighbors right in front of our eyes, and even one's own children kill or get killed in the moments of mindlessness. Right upon entry, the lead practitioner, played with supreme confidence by Jane Cudmore, projects a contained version of the same sort of panic a wild animal must feel when corralled for the first time. It is not accouuntalbe that this troupe of actors has as little experience as the playbill says they do. There are other facts of life leaking into these performances.

I am not a well-educated theater-goer by any estimate, but I've seen a fair amount. I have never been taken so near my edge of comfort as I was by this production. I've been among the audience back in the gonzo days of street theater in SoHo before it was SoHo. The East Village before it was domesticated. But the raw emotions released on this stage made me realize why I could never do what these actors do. The strain to remain just this side of the edge of utter discomposure would be far more than I could take. I would need complete revitalizing sessions between each scene. I would need vacations.

Which can only stand in as metaphor for what was being portrayed. Women who were without place and without comfort and who could not come close to depending even on each other any longer, though each other was all they had. Because each of them was already beyond her edge of holding things together. Each of them was utterly beyond any limit for containing her once and former personality. Psychological talk of how good boundaries lead to good health dissolved like a face in tears once the "therapeutic" talking actually got started.

Yes, how utterly absurd to think that the world could possibly want or appreciate help from us, who are so preoccupied with some sort of politically correct decency of behavior and thought and process and education. Except that these Bosnian women were in need of someone to care for them as they had become; smelly ethnic symbols of pitiable lives. Still alive, still people, still trying to distinguish themselves from what their people had descended into for reasons unaccountable to us who strain in seeming raw anger against people who disagree with us politically. For whom "baby killer" is a reachy metaphor compared to what went on in actuality "over there."

"Baby killer" relates with the same abstract and purely metaphorical remove to the horror of rape as presented here. It has become an abstract problem of sexual continence, boy scout morality; something to be counselled away from by soothing priestly mannish voices. It's well known that Ensler doesn't shy away from the challenges to humanity of our sexuality. It is this which is ever front and center both for the deadened women, and by extreme remove at the core of the psychological practice which empowers the visitors from civilization to this ravaged wasteland. As if repression could contain this much feeling.

I would like - reallly I would - to find some way to participate in the life of this city of mine. I would love something which is less absurd than to patronize from some perspective of expertise or elite education. But the city seems sewn up from above. Expertise is already owned by an elite with closed ranks. Take a swan dive out into the rapids, or fly away to more welcoming places.

I suppose I can only bear witness. On the way back from the ball drop, I passed by that famous house rebuilt by the television inspired crew. Of course, there was a for sale sign. Who, when presented the chance, wouldn't want out from that particular neighborhood when handed the chance? No, wait, I think I'm too quick to jump the gun. This was just a sign from the builder who took the lead in the rebuilding, right? Someone used to building upscale mini-mansions for the better educated, lighter colored denizens of our suburbs. It was hard for me to imagine living there, among the blighted, blasted out remnants of our city before its descent.

As Eve Ensler stated in her presentation of this staged work, the real warfare is what comes afterward, among the women and not among the men. The part we saw on TV was the staged reality. The lived reality doesn't play well. The women are forgotten and, well, there are only a few psychologists brave or famous enough to stay beyond the established protocols of love.

We are our own necessary targets. This is how the visitors to Bosnia finally understood themselves. The tortured and tormented women needed someone to pummel and to hurt who would, however, remain beyond the beatings. Who would strain to understand that these acts of violence came from somewhere beside themselves. From the displacement which exist in each of us between our lust and our humanity.

Sometimes domestic tranquility spills over. Sometimes tears are inevitable. And sometimes they power change which is good. I had to leave as soon as the applause ended, since I could hardly trust myself to say the right thing or to behave properly in front of people who had exposed so much. But you should see this play. Follow the bouncing ball. It ends happily. It floats. The discovery of how stark our privileged lives really are is the only thing which can instigate real change. And no Sarah, YOU keep the change. Honest, I've got more than enough. I can spare it.


Rick cousineau said...

Excellent words to describe the feelings the play has left me with, as well. I have seen it 3 far....( Jane is my wife ) and it moves me....every....single....time.

Susan Forbes said...

As the director of this piece, I am moved by the insight and connection that you feel with the themes of Necessary Targets. I am pleased to see that men are my allies in the struggle to fight the atrocities of violence against women, and our ability to accept the absurdity in thinking we are making a difference.

But, we do what we feel we must. And in our own small way while risking our own personal and emotional journeys infused in Ensler's work, we hope that we do in fact inspire change, however small. Thanks for your words and your lovely support of the play; especially for your support of the fine actors who give themselves in a heightened state of emotional rawness for a relentless 90 minutes to an audience member who allowed himself to open his soul to the work. For you honor us in partaking of all it has to say to you. Also, thanks for sharing your experience of performance for your readers. I hope they too will come and be moved.