The old adage is that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, but, as Jennifer Fawcett’s Buried Cities shows, things are more complicated than that. In Buried Cities, which along with the artistic blind date Entanglement kicked off CulturalDC’s Source Festival last night, the initiating incident happens offstage. Maya (Yesenia Iglesias) and Louis (McCaul Baggett), a well-educated, professional, young couple are robbed at gunpoint in their own home. Reconsideration — of themselves, and of themselves in relation to each other — ensues.
The worst thing about a home robbery is not economic loss. Generally, the things stolen are trivial and easily replaced from insurance proceeds. Much worse is the loss of the illusion of control. If you are at the wrong end of a gun you will do the robber’s bidding; fetch his booty for him; bow down on the ground at his command; tie up your spouse and degrade yourself in whatever other way he wishes. Perhaps now, in the safety of your home, you fantasize about how you will defeat such an insult (I’ll roll over and bite his wrist! When he goes to the bathroom I’ll get my own weapon and Pow! Pow! Pow!) but when the hammer comes down those thoughts will disappear and you will be as compliant as a zombie.
This is what has just happened to Maya and Louis when we first meet them, and they are not dealing well with it. Maya, an architect pregnant with their first child, obsesses over whether she locked the back door properly. Louis, who once studied archeology but is now a history professor, is full of self-doubt and self-recrimination. He is a gentle man, and his behavior in front of the robber has made him doubt his own courage and masculinity.
They each find a remedy, and so draw apart from each other. Louis buys tickets to Crete for them, which Maya considers to be unresponsive to their new circumstances. Maya buys a gun, which horrifies Louis.
These adrift, terrified characters do not have the resources to bring things to resolution, so Fawcett invents a character who can: the heroic Germaine, a professional soldier with the heart of a warrior, which is to say humble, brave, disciplined, honorable and compassionate. He’s also dead, having stepped on an IED in Iraq, but his voice — full of certainty, radiant with masculinity, and, regrettably, uncredited — comes through on the Call of Duty-type virtual reality game that Louis’ 17-year-old nephew Brandon (Frank Cevarich) plays. (Kudos, incidentally, to sound designer Roc Lee, who makes the voice boom out of shifting locations in the room.)
Germaine was the beloved of Brandon’s mother, and also, in a different way, of Brandon himself. He and Brandon together played their game over the Internet, and in this and other easy venues, Germaine imparted the wisdom Brandon now uses to keep himself sane. When Germaine didn’t show up for a prearranged meet in the virtual world, Brandon realized his number had come up, but now he still haunts the corridors of his game, looking for some vestige of the man he loved and admired the most.
It is Fawcett’s brilliant conceit to have Brandon, utilizing what he learned from Germaine, counsel Louis at the same time as Louis is counseling the troubled young man. Had Germaine, undamaged, provided his advice directly, the play would have seemed didactic, but it is profoundly moving to see these two hurting men retrieve the teachings of a dead hero to heal them both.
Maya’s recovery is a little more murky; we do not see how wounded she is until she undertakes, and almost completes, an extraordinarily self-destructive act. But Iglesias, who is convincing throughout, is never more convincing then when she makes this disastrous choice, and then withdraws from it.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. Baggett perfectly captures a particular sort of human being: the annoyingly decent man, sweetly reasonable by nature, whose unfailing generosity of spirit and horrified response to violence and even anger skates on the edge of cloying, but never goes over the top. And Cevarich is brilliant as a young man in a maelstrom of emotions more powerful than he is; every action a response to a call to duty to a man he loves but can no longer see.
closes July 1, 2016
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Had this been all there was to Fawcett’s play, it would have been a first-rate one-act in the American Realism tradition, marred only by a too-long final scene in which Maya and Louis recapitulate to each other truths that the audience has already discovered from more well-wrought scenes. However, for reasons I can only guess at, Fawcett has chosen to append an awkward bit of magical realism to this play, involving an underground labyrinth in Crete (hence the title), the Minotaur, and Leah, a young lady with an astonishing ailment (Lee Gerstenhaber) who first invades Brandon’s virtual reality game and then the rest of the world of the play.
This second story — or story fragment, really — is ripe with possibilities, but they do not realize themselves in Buried Cities, and, worse, it is never clear what it has to do with the rest of the play. This is not the fault of Gerstenhaber, who is excellent (director Ryan Maxwell gets the best out of his entire cast), but it was never clear to me what Leah was doing in any of the scenes that she was in. If Fawcett was trying to invoke the Greek myth of the labyrinth in order to run a parallel to the labyrinth of fear and emotion engulfing Maya, Louis and Brandon, it struck me as way too much work to establish a metaphor, which she may have already established with Brandon’s virtual-reality game.
But really, so what? Buried Cities is well-produced, with spot-on dialogue, crisp action and good pacing. And even Hamlet, in all its massive glory, has some spots which can be trimmed, to the advantage of the play.
Buried Cities, by Jennifer Fawcett, part of the Source Festival, Directed by Ryan Maxwell, featuring McCall Baggett, Yesenia Iglesias, Frank Cevarich and Lee Gerstenhaber. Set design, Kylph Stanford . Costume design, Kara Walla . Lighting designer, Mary Keegan . Sound designer, Roc Lee . Production stage manager Lisa Blythe . Rehearsal stage manager William Blanchette.
Reviewer’s note: DCTS and I personally, have professional relationships with Ryan Maxwell, the play’s director. This has not affected the objectivity of my review.