Produced by Catalyst Theater Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Cassie Platt (Moth) and Scott Fortier (Leather) (Photo credit: Joe Shymanski)
The first thing to understand about this quirky and provocative play is what it is not. It is not a play about the internet. It is not a play about underdeveloped or third-world countries, with or without the internet. It is not about the People’s Republic of China, and, notwithstanding its setting in a socialist country, it is not about the political implications when the economy of some socialist backwater suddenly goes international.
It is about love.
And it is about the fatal optimism of youth. Moth (Cassie Platt) and Belly (the excellent Regina Aquino) are spiritually and materially dispossessed. Gnawing banana peels for nutrition, they stare hungrily through the window of an internet café. They have, strictly speaking, no other place to go. Their high school was blown up when a project to raise funds through the manufacture of fireworks (they could hardly have held a bake sale) went horribly, horribly wrong. Belly’s family has escaped to some safer, more hospitable place and she longs to join them. In the meantime, she lives in some unhappy institutional house. Moth’s home life is vaguer, although playwright Sheila Callaghan implies that her mother works in the sex trade.
Waifs staring through restaurant windows have been a dramatic motif for at least a century, but these young women – Moth is fifteen, and Belly seems only slightly older – hunger after something more important than food. The screens – seen at a remove, through the window – are a portal to paradise for them, and they long to become part of the streaming media before their eyes, even if it means that their bodies and minds would be converted to pixels of light and darkness.
One day a man who could provide a more practical means of transportation (Scott Fortier) arrives. They name him Leather after the bag that he carries, and they know he comes from over the River – that is to say, from a place more prosperous and less cruel than their worker’s paradise. He is in their impoverished province on a sort of academic mission. He appears to be writing a book on the effect of globalization on rural economies, and he is possessed of unimaginable riches – cigarettes! a can of coke! enough coin to buy a cup of coffee! The girls resolve to seduce him, and from there to secure passage across the River themselves.
What Moth and Belly don’t know – but which is apparent to us at our first encounter with Leather, in which he dictates an extended whine about the state of local toilets into a tape intended for his dead mother – is that Leather is a full-bore loon, a Tony Perkinsesque madman who is no more likely to publish a treatise on globalization than he is displace Peyton Manning as starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.
Leather’s “treatise” – which periodically appears on the flock of computers arrayed across the stage – is a collection of windy platitudes, supported neither by research nor by incisive reasoning. Leather is aware of his work’s deficiencies – several times he adds a parenthetical “explain this” after a particularly presumptuous conclusion, and on one occasion he admits that he has no idea what he’s saying – but he is unable to do anything about it. He cannot even chose an investigative topic (“And the question remains…to be determined at a later date” he says, over and over again) and when he finally picks one he has no idea what the answer is. He is like Caliban, of whom Prospero said “thou didst not, savage,/Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like/A thing most brutish….”
Fortier is a superb actor – his Elephant Man at Olney was one of the best performances I saw last year – and he jumps into Leather’s jittery, amped-up personality with both feet. Leather, who seems incapable of completing a thought, speaks in half-completed sentences. Fortier makes it seem as though Leather is receiving some sort of mental electric shock mid-sentence and it is this disturbance which interrupts the thought. Fortier’s interpretation of the character is fully supported by the text, but the text would have also supported a less afflicted Leather, and I can’t help but think that had Fortier and director Shirley Serotsky gone for a more subdued character it would have resulted in less strain on the production as a whole.
Moth is eventually the one who seduces Leather, and she later falls in love with him. Platt, one of those rare adult actors who can convincingly portray children, does about as well as can be expected with her underwritten role. Moth’s motivations are unclear, and it is not even certain that she wants to leave her cruel and impoverished homeland. And it is hard to imagine her, or anyone, falling in love with the febrile Leather. Nonetheless, Platt instills Moth with a certain naiveté which permits us to overlook these contradictions in the script.
Regina Aquino (Belly) (Photo Joe Shymanski)
Belly carries the fire in this story, and Aquino gives us a fierce and highly satisfactory character. Belly is a habitual confabulator. She tells us a story of the time her hand was hacked off but grew back – the story eventually breaks our hearts. Her unquenchable desire to leave her blighted home pushes Moth, Leather and the play itself to its conclusion. Aquino is at every second on stage animated by her objective, and it is ultimately her constancy which guides how we look at the play.
Like many young playwrights, Callaghan is interested in language, and in particular words of loss and powerlessness. Moth and Belly speak in a sort of invented Clockwork Orangish type dialect that allows them to avoid nuance and specificity. Even their own names are unavailable. “My name got losted, and no one could find it,” Moth explains to Leather in a tender moment. “Not me mumser, not me, not me unks….” Leather has his own dialogue of powerlessness: his sentences, pretentiously academic, are incomplete and devoid of meaning. Callaghan’s work with language is some of the best stuff about this play.
Catalyst continues its tradition of fine technical work (the technical director was John Traub). Nicholas Vaughan’s economical set was particularly notable, as were Deb Sevigny’s costumes.
We Are Not These Hands is not a fully realized play, but it is intriguing and provocative and includes at least one terrific performance. If you are at all inclined to watch an emerging playwright do interesting work, Catalyst’s extraordinary pricing policy ($10 a ticket) makes this show an appropriate place to spend an evening.
(Run time: 1 hr, 50 mins with no intermission) We Are Not These Hands runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 7.30 p.m. until March 3 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 7th and G Streets SE. Additional Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. All tickets $10.