Shotgun Players' hostage drama takes no prisoners
The three men shackled to the floor in Frank McGuinness' drama Someone Who'll Watch Over Me are guinea pigs in a theatrical experiment.
Irish playwright McGuinness takes an extreme situation from real life - three men are political hostages in a cell on the outskirts of Lebanon - and uses it to dissect the human psyche.
Stripped of everything we value, isolated from those we love and thrust into the care and company of strangers, who are we?
Neither McGuinness' play nor director Patrick Dooley's Shotgun Players production cuts deeply enough to discover the answer to that question. But the experience of watching the play does open up a lot of fascinating issues about the fantasy and reality of self-identity.
The action of the play is, of course, limited. The actors are quite literally chained by the wrist to the floor.
So, for the play's 2 1/2 hours, we settle in to watch hope and desperation battle it out with fear and insanity in the hearts and souls of three disparate men.
The first of the prisoners to go wobbly is the American, Adam (Richard J. Silberg). The irony to this is that Adam appears to be the strongest. Always doing push-ups and using his shackles as if they were part of a weight training program, Adam, who tells his cohorts that he's from Fremont, insists that he will not be defeated by his situation.
But then something happens with the guards in the bathroom, and Adam begins having nightmares about his parents and his childhood. That's never a good sign.
With Adam on the brink of losing it, his fellow hostages step up their efforts to keep despair at bay.
Edward the Irishman (Clive Worsley) is the most animated of the three. He sings - everything from The Water Is Wide to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - he dances, he clowns. Occasionally he falters, but he fights hard.
Michael the Englishman (Kevin Karrick) speaks in a hyper-genteel accent that makes him sound like a 1940s British film star. A self-described ``sanctimonious prig," he is restrained and reluctant to admit to human frailty, and yet his lack of contact with his own emotions may be the very thing that saves him.
To break the monotony, the prisoners pretend to create movies. One person narrates the action while another acts it out. Or they dictate pretend letters to their families at home. Or they read one of the two books their captors have provided for them: the Bible and the Koran.
In their more contemplative moments, the men also consider the nature of God and wonder how a merciful deity could make innocent people suffer.
The play's title comes from the Gershwin song Someone to Watch Over Me, a favorite of the Irishman's, but as the play progresses, it's clear the title also refers to the hostage takers, to a higher being and to the prisoners themselves as they learn to care for one another to the best of their abilities.
Director Dooley understands the play's internal rhythms and ably guides his strong actors. This is a play where very little actually happens, so the drama has to come in small, subtle ways.
The actors all perform admirably, and each has moments of raw emotion and compassion that take the play where it needs to go.
Worsley as the Irishman is especially good. Where Karrick and Silberg fall into the playwright's trap of creating American and English stereotypes, Worsley forges his own path and creates a complex man of equal parts humor and darkness.
One of the production's great advantages is the performance space. The Eighth Street Studio Theatre in Berkeley is a good-size room, but Dooley and set designer Michael Frassinelli wisely cram the action into a cramped corner of the room. The set-up of the seats forces the audience into the dingy cell with the hostages, and it is, as it should be, uncomfortable.
An American, an Irishman, and an Englishman are locked up together in a Lebanese prison cell, held hostage by captors they neither know nor understand. There is food, but no indication of whether it is night or day. The men offer each other companionship and support, but like the residents of Jean-Paul Sartre's hell in No Exit, they also serve as one another's most skilled torturers. They are in shackles, chained to the floor.
It's funny, but the actual shackles are what got under my skin the most in this excellent Shotgun Players production. In the first ten minutes, you realize that these characters are never able to raise their arms above their heads. All gestures they make are truncated. It's very claustrophobic. Standing in their boxer shorts, with cramped arms, they are completely powerless.
Director Patrick Dooley, artistic director of Shotgun Players, has done good work with Frank McGuinness' unflinching drama, based on the conversations between these three men, who, in their bouts with fear, act as constantly shifting points on a triangle. The American, Adam (Richard J. Silberg), is first seen doing push-ups: he's a healthy, good-hearted doctor who seems made of steel, but is the first to crack. Irish Edward (Clive Worsley) is at first sarcastic and sometimes mean, but is the most courageous in speaking the truth about the trio's grim situation. The English professor, Michael (Kevin Karrick), comes across first as a comic British caricature, meek and priggish and absurdly polite. He is, of course, much more than this, and the gradual peeling away of his outer layers is fascinating to behold.
McGuinness' dialogue is juicy, infused with emotional resonance and humor, and cites everything from the jazz standard of the play's title to medieval literature to the Koran.
All three actors are terrific, particularly Worsley, whose fiery Irish-accented Edward gives the play an indispensable comic vitality. Silberg's desperate monologue about what the market price of an American might be is compelling. At times, the baby-faced Karrick seems miscast, too youthful to be plausible as the older professor, but his performance in the second act makes this forgivable.
If the pace feels slow in patches, it's probably connected to the characters' intense feelings of bored restlessness. For most of the action, you're more likely to empathize with their trapped-animal frustration and wonder at what human beings do when they are afraid and powerless.
Berkeley troupe offers sharp, funny Someone
Shotgun Playerscurrent production, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, is a sobering, acidly etched -- and yet, achingly and oddly funny -- story about the resiliency of the human spirit under extreme duress. It's a tight play: a tiny cell with three prisoners stripped to their underwear and chained to the floor.
Director Patrick Dooley's tight direction adds to the intensity. But it is the sharply defined portrayals by the three actors that make this difficult play work. They are: Kevin Karrick as Michael, an English university teacher; Richard J. Silberg as Adam, an American psychologist, and Clive Worsley as Edward, an Irish journalist. The constraints of space and movement are essential elements of the drama. After almost two hours -- if you give yourself to the story unfolding on the little platform stage only yards away -- you begin to share a feeling of deprivation; to sense the tightening grip of fear; to understand how it could feel to lose your sanity.
"Silence was also a critical part of this production," Dooley said when asked about some of his directorial choices.
"In rehearsal, the actors found that it was very difficult to stay on stage and not speak for only five minutes. The other temptation was to feel that they had to make up for their silence by filling the space with physical noise -- activities, mimed stuff, artificial emotions, heavy breathing, etc. "When they actually relaxed and just silently coexisted, it was beautiful -- like watching a nature program." To fight their mounting fear and save their sanity, the prisoners create imaginary refuges in their minds into which they can withdraw. They write and read aloud imaginary letters. In one especially funny sequence, each takes turns pretending to direct movies of the other two. The styles are eerily on the mark of their favorite directors: Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, Richard Attenborough.
They play imaginary games. They throw parties. They get angry with each another and shout. They make up. And it is in these turnabouts that they reveal a deep affection for and a dependence on one another. The humor is sharp and penetrating. You feel guilty laughing, given the fix they're in. Then you realize the humor springs from an inner terror, and they are holding it at bay with shafts of laughter. This intensity cannot go on indefinitely, neither on stage or in life. Something has to give. The dramatic explosion is a catharsis -- the purifying of the emotions or relief of emotional tension, a concept originally applied by Aristotle to the effect of tragic drama on audiences.
Someone Who'll Watch Over Me unfolds in catharsis rather than explodes. That's the way the play builds; that's the way it should, and does, end.
A simple goal dramatically defined
Day and night blur into nothingness for the lost souls in Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. Chained to the fetid floor of a cell in Lebanon, their only crime being foreigners, three men stare into the yawning abyss of a future without basic human rights. This is a hellish existence where months seem to bleed into forever and the outside world almost ceases to exist. There is no light and no hope and, most of all, no exit.
Director Patrick Dooley makes the most of the 8th Street Studio's funky performance space in Berkeley, a claustrophobic warehouse with rigging hanging from the ceiling and a tiny triangular stage thrust in the corner. While the first act drags considerably as the ensemble takes its time finding the pulse of Frank McGuinness' play, this Shotgun Players production ultimately delivers a chilling sense of what it's like to endure the interminable.
The opening moments find Adam, an arrogant U.S. doctor (Richard J. Silberg) and Edward, a jocular Irish journalist (Clive Worsley) crouched in a filthy corner against stained walls (set by Michael Frassinelli). They are pawns in a global war; hostages being held for some cause they know nothing about. Mostly what they do is wait. Time ticks by with cruel lethargy. To break the monotony, they exercise, straining their bodies against the shackles in a futile attempt to keep fit amid the listlessness and inertia. They cling to this meager discipline like a lifeline. When their daily ration arrives or when they are allowed to go to the bathroom, it's a huge event, a reminder they are still alive, still human. These moments are few and far between.
At first it's only Edward who relieves his frustration by talking. Worsley throws himself into Edward's frantic rants about his profession, his family and his memories. Conversation is how he convinces himself that he's still human. Filling the stage with his vigorous presence, the actor finds the beautiful persistent rhythms in the script and lets them serve as a harsh counterpoint to the reality of the action.
Silberg fleshes out his character less substantially, leaving Adam a somewhat muted figure whose thirst for the Bible and feelings about his wife remain unclear.
No sooner do Adam and Edward begin to reach out to each other than a third prisoner arrives. Michael (a deft turn by Kevin Karrick), a gentlemanly literature professor from England, began his day foraging for pears to make a flan and ended it lying prostrate in a cell. He's a bit pampered, a bit flabby, the sort who's never done a push-up in his life. He awakens to find that he has become a missing person, one of those items from the evening news that's sad but soon forgotten.
About halfway through the play, in a scene when the three men escape their reality by making believe they are sipping cocktails, the ensemble comes into its own. The actors shed their tentativeness and connect to each other in a palpable way that conveys the intimacy and dependency among their characters.
They are jubilant at their achievement, carving out a few moments of cheer amid the doom. Then suddenly a realization hits. Nothing has changed. Death and torture could come at any time for any reason -- or no reason.
From then on, the production finds its unremitting pace. The unmotivated line readings and slack cadence that plague the first act right themselves. The second act finds the prisoners torn apart as the playwright examines what makes a man and what can unmake him. Dooley casts the barrenness of the situation into high relief with a single reverberant sound effect that echoes through the final moments of the piece.
Michael sits alone in his concrete hole about to lose his mind to the deafening silence. All he has left is his fortitude, the insistence that he retains some small measure of control over his fate. The lights go down on the sight of him bracing himself against the floor, resolving to do the only thing he can, survive.
Three Men in a Cell ... to say nothing of the firing squad
Jerome K. Jerome's novel Three Men in a Boat deals with three idle Englishmen floating down the Thames with a dog. They have amusing adventures and emit witticisms that made their author famous enough in his day (the late 19th century) to bring about Oscar Wilde's public disgrace.
Frank McGuinness' play Someone Who'll Watch Over Me deals with three men chained to the floor of a Lebanese jail. An Englishman, an Irishman, and an American, with nothing to do but wait for death, amuse themselves by composing imaginary letters or miming fantasies of cocktails and fine food. Their witticisms are nasty and aimed at each other, and instead of ending in a clever comedic luncheon in London the play ends with one of its characters executed.
McGuinness also wrote, among other plays, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which Viaduct Theater produced here a couple of years ago. He lectures in English at St. Patrick's College in Maynooth, Ireland. As far as I know he's never done time in Lebanon, no more than he's fought in the First World War; but then Someone Who'll Watch Over Me isn't about Middle Eastern politics. His characters never see their captors. They've been grabbed at random from the streets of Beirut. That they're in Beirut is superfluous; they could just as easily sit in a Siberian gulag -- or a Beckett play.
So the show consists, literally, of two-plus hours of men in a cell. First we see Adam, the American doctor, and Edward, the Irish journalist. Adam keeps himself fit with push-ups, Edward would rather jeer and complain. Soon a linguist named Michael gets dumped unconscious next to them. Michael is a great, soft, earnest lunk of an Englishman who provides fresh jeering material for Edward. "You're a miserable git, aren't you?" Edward says, about 10 minutes into their acquaintance, and when Michael in passing calls Irish speech a "dialect," Edward erupts. "We've taken [English] from you," he shouts. "We've made it our own. An' we've bettered ya at it!"
Edward is a lively, savage presence who fuels the play with his bitter, scathing brogue. Clive Worsley plays him brilliantly. I know Worsley from his performance last year as the mild, tippling American broadcaster in Mr. Happiness; the bright flash of his adopted accent here works a nice contrast. In shackles, with scrawny legs exposed, wearing a shaggy beard, he looks and acts like a desperate, hunted animal. At the show's climax he drops straight into a pit of madness and grief (against Michael's civilized protests), and wrenches a strange catharsis from a script that's mostly talk.
Kevin Karrick, as Michael, works against his own obvious Irishness to create a pompous but sympathetic Brit who hankers for homemade pear flan. He's stern, judicious, polite, and reserved about his own feelings. "Don't be afraid of pain," he remembers his father telling him. "Don't be afraid of controlling it." Karrick rises to brilliance in a speech about Michael's wife, who died in a car crash; the spectacle of him wrestling with grief is wrenching. Lying at the heart of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is a study in contrast between Irish and English attitudes toward pain, and although McGuinness breathes into his English character a respectful and believable life, he still comes down for the home team. "Bein' Irish helped me," says Edward, near the end.
The flawed part of this production is Richard Silberg's performance as the American, Adam. He should be a commanding presence in the cell, but Silberg's acting lacks authority. He lets no emotion play through his voice. Director Patrick Dooley has probably told him to be stoic next to the gregarious Irishman, but the result isn't a tough character so much as a line-reading one. (Maybe he has improved in recent appearances; I saw the show in preview.) Still, his performance perks up when Adam slides toward craziness. "I want a pair of jockey shorts," he tells his cellmates in a cracked deadpan. "I want my country's greatest contribution to the world -- a white, clean pair of jockey shorts." [Pause.] "I wanna kill an Arab."
Someone Who'll Watch Over Me can't help dragging now and then; even the funny scenes begin to feel redundant and drawn-out. But tedium must be the main feeling of being in jail. McGuinness has written an Irish fugue for three voices, resonant but slow, that appreciates but finally lacerates English (and American) restraint. I doubt he had Jerome K. Jerome in mind, but the play works as a quiet rebuke to anyone who would shoot down an Irishman for flaming too bright.
Bay Guardian, March 7, 2001
Shotgun Players presents Frank McGuinness's drama about an American, an Englishman, and an Irishman held hostage in Lebanon. Although inspired by the real-life experiences of Terry Anderson and others, the play barely touches on the politics of the Middle East - the Arab captors, while reference points for the characters' despair, remain offstage and peripheral, incidental to the play's themes. McGuinness concerns himself instead with the relationships between Adam (Richard J. Silberg), Edward (Clive Worsley, in a flawless performance), and Michael (Kevin Karrick), as they struggle to maintain their grip on sanity. McGuinness uses their desperate condition to explore the universal need for love, compassion, and understanding, as well as the power of humor to sustain people in an absurd situation. The setting, with its ready-made assumptions and loaded associations, may ultimately be a hindrance to the playwright's more general aim, but McGuinness's talent for dialogue and three outstanding performances under Patrick Dooley's direction make for a captivating evening.
View , March 7, 2001
The premise sounds almost like the setup of an absurd joke: an American, an Irishman, and an Englishman are, for reasons unknown to them and to us, being held captive in a Lebanese prison cell. But Frank McGuinness' tough and tender play is the furthest thing from a joke; it takes its characters and their situation utterly seriously, which is not to say that the three actors in Shotgun Players Artistic Director Patrick Dooley's taut production don't find plenty of the play's humor. They do, but more impressively, they find their characters' humanness and humaneness.
Two actors are already on the Eighth Street Studio stage - a small platform in the corner of a large room in a West Berkeley warehouse complex - as the audience members enter and take their seats on two sets of bleachers. Muscular Adam (Richard J. Silberg), a doctor, is the American; wiry Edward (Clive Worsley), a journalist, is the Irishman; portly Michael (Kevin Karrick), a teacher, is the Englishman. They wear nothing but shorts and T-shirts, and their manacled wrists are chained to the floor. Each man has a towel and a plastic water bottle. They pass their time perusing their only reading matter, the Bible and the Koran; doing push-ups and arm crunches; or devising diversions, such as retelling the story of Virginia Wade's 1977 triumph at Wimbledon or listing desert island discs (one of those, Ella Fitzgerald's recording of the classic Gershwin tune, gives the play its title).
Adam, from Fremont, dreams of taking his fellow prisoners on a tour of San Francisco's seafood restaurants. Teetering on the brink of losing it, he rants about his jealousy of his parents' foster children - a diatribe Silberg makes chilling - and the value, or price, of being an American. Worsley's superbly sardonic Edward responds to Adam's talk about sex with a classic pugnacious Irish riposte: "We invented foreplay; we call it drink." Predictably, Edward taunts Karrick's touchingly gentle Michael, and if the chains hadn't kept the two apart, they might have come to blows over the potato famine. But in the play's sweetest moments they sing The Water is Wide and bond over a strangely moving rendition of the title song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
We never see or learn anything about the captors, or why these men were kidnapped, in the course of the two-act play's two-and-a-half hours. (During the intermission, the actors remain chained and in character onstage.) One man eventually is taken out and presumably executed. Another is set free. One man remains at the end, performing the same physical act the play began with: pushups. McGuinness' matter-of-fact mixture of bleakness, absurdity, anguish, humor and warmth has led some observers to compare the setting to the anteroom of Hell devised by Sartre in No Exit and the road to nowhere on which Beckett placed Waiting for Godot. But the text doesn't support such microcosmic existential parallels, nor does it feel like a tribute to the indomitable human spirit, à la Life is Beautiful. It instead derives its stark power, intensified in Dooley's distilled staging, in the contrast between the men's current terror and the fragile, fond memories they cling to, as they try, and falter, under the direst of circumstances, to help each other heal their broken hearts and maintain their breaking spirits.