Dallas — Second Thought Theatre’s production of Marius Von Mayenberg’s Martyr, in a translation by Maja Zade, is ironically hard to nail down. Director Blake Hackler’s strong directorial hand squeezes the humanity out of a play leaving a quagmire of contradictions. All the reaching for the iconic ends up ironic. As the evening fails to add up, it may seem like the only real martyr is sitting in your seat.
Darren Diggle sets the stage with monochromatic altar platform with throne room furniture and flanking empty door sockets. It’s the kind of space that says nothing and it says it loudly. At times Hackler’s Viewpoints-esque staging makes it look like the cast has been allowed to perform their show in someone else’s theater provided they only use things from the current show. Only Aaron Johansen’s lighting with its giant silhouettes and careful painterly glow proves that all of the irregularity is perfectly planned.
On its surface the story is about a boy, Benjamin (Garret Storms), clinging to his faith in the face of the common terrors of adolescence: school, parents and puberty. Though Storms is physically, fully developed, the audience can still identify with the confusion of those days. That is until the show won’t let us.
Storms is allowed to play Benjamin with the heightened intensity of a true believer. The characterization steam rolls interactions with his mother, Inge Sudel (Lulu Ward), his teachers, Markus (Andrews Cope) and Erika (Allison Pistorious) and their administrator Willy (Thomas Ward). By the time you write him off as a victim of his own fundamental fanaticism, a crack appears.
Whereas Hackler has banished the sensible in his staging, the sensual is given free reign. Classmates Lydia (Mikaela Kranz) and Georg (Ruben Carrazana) have titillating interactions with the “believing” boy-wonder below his Bible belt. What was a rewarmed Equus minus the horse starts to feel like the musical Spring Awakening minus the music. In theatrical arithmetic, minus a minus is not a plus. The “look at me” staging and provocative topic laundry list script can be filed together under the same heading of over-compensating adolescent exhibition, but it’s not hand-in-glove as much as it’s a middle finger to the world. The indictment of everybody and everything comes off as subtle as a suicide bomb and about as specific.
This is a dedicated cast executing precise external patterns of movements. At times they can keep it impersonal, but at others, they can’t resist the old habits of trying to fill their performance with real emotion. Ironically, we love their failures. Ruben Carrazana’s Georg is the most affecting and three-dimensional character. Andrews Cope’s Markus leaks bits of dimension, too. Allison Pistorious creates the most impassioned character as the archetypal “one teacher who cares.” In fact, given the eventual opportunism of the main character, she comes off as a strong candidate for the hero, albeit tragically flawed. All in all, it’s a perverse experience watching the waste of talent. Paul Taylor as Vicar Dieter is the most bizarre, adhering to a frozen smile and stiff legged wind-up walk consistently throughout.
As the connection between movement and language continually unlinks the audience has fewer echoes in their experience. These humans they’re watching begin to resemble automatons and with the end of empathy, so goes the interest. There’s a quid pro quo implied in audience attendance that implies our attention but given an easy escape this crowd may have wandered away.
The last bits of humanity having been wringed out long before the climax, the shocking turn of tactics by the main character produces less shifting of the audience’s minds as shifting in their seats. In other words, the less human, the more ho-hum. To make matters worse, any arguments that could have formed as the basis of debate end up contravened by the character that was their champion.
Thought provoking only works when it is well thought out.