IN ARABIA WE'D ALL BE KINGS inaugurates Lab Theatre in Allen Complex
It's been an amazing year for the Cleveland Play House. On Fall of 2011 they moved into their new Allen Theatre home, a beautiful and functional facility in The Playhousesquare complex. Last month they produced their first-ever theatre in the round production in their new Second Stage performance space. And, now, the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre is open for productions.
The Lab Theatre is a flexible black box. For IN ARABIA WE'D ALL BE KINGS, performed by the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program, the space was set in a runway configuration. In this type of staging, the audience sits in parallel sections opposite each other, with the action taking place on a rectangular space between the seated groups of viewers. Think-the traditional high school football stadium-in minature.
The format worked well for the in-your-face writing of Stephen Adly Guirgis. The Irish-American/Egyptian Guirgis, who was nominated for a Tony Award for his THE MOTHERF* *KER WITH THE HAT, is one of America's new breed of playwrights. IN ARABIA WE'D ALL BE KINGS, like much of Guirgis's writing, is gritty, free form, and uses the language of the streets. There is no sugar coating, no happy endings, no political correctness, just no-holds-barred realism.
The play is set in a Manhattan bar. It's the kind of dive that most educated, suburban people, would walk out of as soon as they walked in. The place is sleazy, it's inhabited by the "sociological sub-strata" which Guirgis seems to know so well. Among others, there is a recently released from jail thug, a prostitute, a junkie, and, a drunk whose entire life is spent sitting on his corner-of-the world bar stool.
The play is about a group of dysfunctional people who have formed their own community with their fellow bar inhabitants. These are people who live by their wits, often perpetuating violence and often are on the receiving end of it. These are the people who used to populate New York's Hell's Kitchen until the city cleaned up its act and closed their homes-away-from home. These off-beats who have nothing more to do than dream far-fetched dreams, living in the constant hope that things will work out for the better, and escape from reality through drugs, sex, liquor and talking, were left without their culture and way of life when the bars and flop houses were shuttered.
Guirgis's dialogue is filled with language that might easily offend…racial and ethnic slurs, swearing, gutter slang. They say what pops into their often-confused minds. These are feeling, not thinking people.
On the surface, theatre-goers, who tend to be the type who have probably never come in direct contact with this urban underclass, might be repulsed by the motley group. Yet, as written about by Guirgis, there is audience understanding, compassion, a feeling of being sorry for and wanting to reach out to these misguided folks.
The playwright is an actor turned writer, and, as such, he gives his thespians the material to work with. He writes complete characters whose motivations are transparent. He sets forth language that is natural and real. The motivations that push the characters forward and the story are clear. He writes isolated scenes rather than the usual flowing script which has transitions from one segment to another. He doesn't waste words…the viewer can fill in the blanks. Often he motivates stunned silence, at times he forces laughter, often out of embarrassment rather than a joke or a funny instance. This is heady stuff.
Ron Wilson's direction is spot on. The action whips along, the characterizations are clear, and the staging creative. He is aided by a group of first year MFA students who show potential for making this a very special class.
Everyone in the cast is strong. Especially effective were Stephen Spencer as Skank, a spaced-out druggie, whose ability to live in a fantasy world is clearly etched. Spencer is Skank, Skank is Spencer! Christa Hinckley is appropriately pathetic as the needy, airheaded Christie, who will do anything, including prostituting herself, for drugs. Therese Anderberg (Demaris) has a wonderful touch with exaggerated comedy.