Tone Clusters and Other Works: Theater Review

Tone Clusters - H 2013
Chris Sibley
Subtle and sensitive mounting of literary lion’s thematically ham-handed expose is nevertheless laden with finely calibrated stylized detail. 

Joyce Carol Oates' exploration of grief in the midst of TV media's glare comes to Topanga Canyon.

Acclaimed novelist Joyce Carol Oates has also dabbled in writing for the stage, and this presentation of four short monologues followed by the hour-long title piece represent some of her earliest efforts from around 1990-91. In the bucolic environs of the Theatricum Botanicum’s smaller hillside space nestled in Topanga Canyon, Oates’ hard, precise language can feel contrastingly stark, capable of compassion yet merciless in observation.

A traditional working-class couple in the Newark suburbs, Frank and Emily Gulick (married players Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James), whose 22-year-old son awaits trial for raping and murdering a young adolescent neighbor, have consented to be interviewed on television to tell their “side of the story,” though they are ill-equipped to express themselves other than ineptly. Their deer-in-headlights helplessness is compounded by an unseen interviewer (voice of Jeff Wiesen), whose satirically abstract philosophical questions baffle them and sound like no audience-pandering television reporting one is ever likely to hear. Under the oppressive glare of flat lighting, surrounded by menacing video images offering unflattering views of themselves, they wallow in denial and shallow rationalizing, recourse to nostrums, sentiment and resentful racial and political attitudes, pathetically human and monstrously clueless.

The effect, in substance, is quite akin to harpooning mackerel in a barrel. Oates’ social and psychological insights trend toward the obvious, and while she displays considerable acumen about what would become the future direction of media news (the production updates the action to 2003, which keeps it in the past yet no longer long enough ago to lapse into a period piece), her dissection of these two souls who were never found enough to become lost proceeds so methodically that the themes have little room to develop after the first 10 or 15 minutes.

Nevertheless, under the attentive hand of director Mike Peebler, much persistently goes on. Oates’ title, with its reference to a long-established modern compositional technique of deploying dissonant chords comprised of multiple adjacent notes, signals her musical aspirations which involve elements of rhythm, recurring motifs and especially of overlapping sounds so close together that they evoke both friction and stasis. Veterans Blumenfeld and James find revealing gestures of rapport while rigorously performing the challenging score as if it were graphically notated. Oates’ acute observations may add up to platitudes of a different stripe than those of her specimens, but her sense of orchestrating elements of dread and unyielding concentration enriches the theatrical experience with genuine tonal freshness. The most memorable locution in the show is Emily’s “remembering backward is really hard,” and that sense of dislocation from one’s own past finds more clangorous realization in the sound and structure of the play than in the text itself.

The opening short monologues, which concentrate with Oates’ characteristically unblinking focus on such issues as cross-dressing, anorexia and a marriage at the moment of its collapse, display in brief many of the same strengths and weaknesses of the longer work. Three of the four were originally part of an omnibus piece, I Stand Before You Naked, and all of them were far more effective as part of the fabric of that layered, allusive and ultimately more impressively organic theatrical foray. 

Venue: Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, Topanga Canyon (runs through Oct. 12)

Cast: Alan Blumenfeld, Katherine James, Sarah Lyddan, Cynthia Kania, Jonathan Blandino, Jeff Wiesen

Director: Mike Peebler

Playwright: Joyce Carol Oates

Set designer: Sam Gold

Lighting designer: Brandi Martin

Music and sound designer: Michael Roth

Costume designer: Andrea Molina

Media installation producer: Chris Sibley