Fort Worth — Sometimes simpler is better and more is just extra. A waste, even. That’s why the stripped-down, Jeffrey Schmidt-directed Wasteland is such a paradox.
Produced under the aegis of unMasqued Theatre, Co-Artistic Directors Drew Feldman and Ty Fanning star in the Texas/Regional premiere of Susan Felder’s play at Stage West’s Studio Theatre. It’s a traveling production that will next go to Oklahoma City, Colorado Springs and Rochester, N.Y. The group’s description claims it is a “communal, nomadic theater company that strives to build a bridge between actor and spectator through creative collaboration of multi-disciplinary artists.”
Put simpler: an actor in down light and a voice from off stage. Eighty minutes of Vietnam prisoner of war dialogue. Wasteland.
The paradox is in how they’ve managed to make it seem like there is so much extra in this stark scenario. Joe (Drew Feldman), trying to stay fit and pass the time, is finishing a hundred pushups in his subterranean prison cell. He hears Riley (Ty Fanning) being thrown into an adjacent hole. The gimmick is that Fanning will perform his role from behind the audience’s seats. Even though he’s so close, we, just like Joe, will never see him.
Schmidt allows the actors to move with lightning pace, diminishing the discoveries inherent in meeting and making an alliance (even if it is through a wall). The reactions to the details that make another human distinct from ourselves seem to pour out of the actors with pre-loaded rapidity. Consequently, there’s no shape to the building of their relationship. Worse, those details come across as superfluous. As the scenes repetitively go to black and Feldman moves his ammo crate in a distracting attempt to signify the passage of time, the relationship barely evolves. When all is said and done, the play doesn’t so much as end as just stop. And, it could just have easily stopped earlier.
Felder has made sure that her characters contrast completely. One’s northern and one’s southern. One’s educated, one’s not. One’s a little bit country and the other is rock ’n’ roll. Can you guess which one is gay? Thank God they have Star Trek to talk about.
Oh, wait. One’s religious. The other…
The trafficking in tropes is not just maddeningly cliché, but in this production they don’t seem to add up to much. There aren’t any greater themes lurking behind these seemingly perfect opposites lodged so close together. Despite writing her characters being trapped underground, Felder refuses to let them get deep, preferring instead movie star references. Because of the shapeless relationship, some of the scenes almost seem out of sequence. Halfway through, they resort to the shorthand get-to-know-you quiz: “Blondes or brunettes.” This is not an obvious choice after supposedly being next to someone for six months. Their struggles seem to be dwarfed by the extraneous contrast of their characters.
And do they struggle.
Feldman, being the only one onstage, does the heavy lifting in the show. The problem isn’t in the lifting. His character has been in the hole for a long time when the evening begins. Psychologically, that’s a lot to lift. The problem is in making it look heavy.
Actors are most successful when they make the character’s goals their own. The converse is also true. When the actor’s endeavor catches our notice i.e. attempting to appear to struggle, we become engaged in an entirely different spectator sport. That’s why patrons can be impressed with how hard an actor works, and not know why they weren’t really into a show.
The audience’s investment in a character comes from their endeavor, their pursuit of a goal: slaying a dragon, winning the hand of a fair maiden, or just conquering the fear of getting out of bed. Any clear aim will gain our attention; differing approaches will build our interest. Just look at the crowds that gather at lunchtime to watch construction equipment move dirt. Add to the scenario high stakes and the audience will be whipped into intense emotional reactions. Look at any professional sports play-off game.
Take away the stakes, limit the approaches and muddy the aim and watch the crowds dwindle. Instead of stadiums, there are theaters with 45 seats.
When theater is great, people know it. When it’s not, they just think it’s theater.