Grasses of a Thousand Colors: Theater Review

The Public Theater and Theatre for a New Audience
Although it contains flashes of brilliance, this rambling, digressive drama is more bizarre than thought-provoking.

Wallace Shawn's sexually charged, dystopian drama concerns a doctor who solves the world's hunger problem by inventing a substance enabling animals to eat their own kind.

NEW YORK -- By the time Grasses of a Thousand Colors reaches its conclusion after a torturous three-and-a-quarter hours, you’ll have thought about Wallace Shawn’s genitals far more than you could have ever imagined. If that prospect seems enticing to you, then by all means rush to see this typically provocative and even weirder effort than usual from the actor/playwright. But those easily offended by such topics as bestiality and cannibalism, be warned.

Previously presented at London’s Royal Court in 2009 and now receiving its American premiere as part of the Public Theater’s celebration of the 40-year collaboration between Shawn and director Andre Gregory (My Dinner with Andre), the dystopian drama is set in the near future. The playwright stars as Ben, a doctor who relates a tale of how he solved the world’s hunger problem by creating “Grain Number One,” a miraculous substance which enables the animal kingdom to survive by eating its own kind.

Naturally, this leads to all sorts of ecological disasters, including shape-shifting animals with whom humans have wanton sex. Along the way, we are introduced to such other characters as Cerise (Julie Hagerty), Ben’s long-suffering wife; Robin (Jennifer Tilly), his voluptuous, sex-craved mistress; and Rose (Emily Cass McDonnell), a young woman whose business card features a picture of her vagina.

Narrating the story derived from his encyclopedia-sized memoirs, Ben, clad in a dressing gown and slippers--he prefers to be comfortable—frequently fortifies his energy by sipping from a strange elixir. It’s too bad the substance can’t be shared with audience members struggling to stay awake during the bizarre proceedings delivered largely in the form of free-associative monologues.

Despite the play’s superficially lurid aspects that include Ben’s endlessly describing his penis which he lovingly describes as “my best friend,” it’s obvious that Shawn is attempting to explore big themes, including sexual politics and the dangers of unbridled science. And there’s no shortage of dexterous verbal wit on display, such as when Ben says that “my underpants felt like a disordered room where a party had been held.”

But the drama is too diffuse to maintain our interest during its ridiculously long running time and endlessly digressive excursions into luridness. By this point the playwright’s desire to shock us out of our complacency has worn thin, and this work lacks the more pointed political and social bite of such previous efforts as Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever and Marie and Bruce.

As always, Shawn is an engaging presence, at once avuncular and slightly sinister, and his deadpan comic timing and delivery often produce the intended laughs. Hagerty and Tilly make strong impressions as well, the latter handling the more outrageous aspects of her role with amusing aplomb.

Gregory’s staging boasts his usual elegant touches, including haunting visual projections and atmospheric music and sound design by Howard Harrison. But for all the care that’s gone into its presentation, Grasses of a Thousand Colors has the feel of a overly sexualized shaggy dog story that never lives up to its ambitious premise.  

Venue: Public Theater, New York (runs through Nov. 24)

Cast: Wallace Shawn, Julie Hagerty, Jennifer Tilly, Emily Cass McDonnell

Director: Andre Gregory

Playwright: Wallace Shawn

Scenic designer: Eugene lee

Costume designer: Dona Granata

Lighting designer: Howard Harrison

Original music and sound designer: Bruce Odland

Video designer: Bill Morrison

Presented by the Public Theater and Theatre for a New Audience