Social studies II

Workhorse’s insightful With Claws and Beak
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  April 18, 2006

Workhorse is a well-named theater. If the energy used to create With Claws and Beak, at the Carriage House through April 23, were drawn off the power grid, lights would dim all over Providence during every performance.

Marya Errin Jones and Hannah Hay Kenah co-wrote the play drawing from extensive improvisation work and brief appropriations of text ranging from St. Francis of Assisi and Sufi mystic Rumi, to iconic independent thinkers Henry David Thoreau and Voltaire. Background music shifts tones from gentle Saint-Saëns to eerily beautiful Astor Piazzola to the ear-melting death metal band Fleshgrind.

The nearly 90-minute blur of activity is directed by Stephen Buescher, himself a dynamo who specializes in physical theater. If this production were any more animated, Pixar would be getting credit.

The subject is war and aggression, but as a visual essay it’s more Fellini than Clausewitz. The play suggests that revolution is an inevitable response to injustice, but in more agitpop than agitprop style. Playwrights Jones and Kenah are spookily (and hilariously) channeling Punch and Judy.

The magic of this sort of muscular theater when it’s done well — and Workhorse does it very well — is that the text fades into the background; the meaning of exchanges and scenes comes through loud and clear below the radar of thinking and judging. Call it stealth theater. Meaning is conveyed viscerally. We’re being spoken to in emotions more than words.

The best example is the opening scene, when two soldiers decide to escape the drudgery and terror of warfare. We see Kouriv (Esther Haddad) and Mesh (Kenah) as cogs in a military machine, almost literally. Long plastic tubes are used like medieval quarterstaffs one moment, like mechanical rods thrusting unstoppably back-and-forth the next, and like prison bars they need to squeeze through the next. Recited text lists rules of cellular automata in which the num¬ber of occupants in an adjacent cell determines whether occupants of the present cell survive, die, or invade — Iraq, Cyprus, and Yugoslavia on a biological level. But more compelling is how the anxiety of the two soldiers is physicalized. At points, their crawling, contorting, running, and writhing, together and apart, is choreographed as meticulously as a Balanchine ballet.

Things get even more inventive when the two deserters come across the great house of a nobleman — indicated by a small Persian rug that falls to the stage with a thunk and is unrolled by a bickering family of three aristocrats. The haughty Isaac (Richard Lloyd Cambier) lives there with his disagreeable wife, Isabelle (Jones) and his snooty mother (Emilia Sumelius). (This play isn’t just anti-Gulf War, it’s anti-All Wars, so the French Revolution is used as a generic model.) Being superior and thereby unthreatened, the nobles take in the uncouth soldiers, but not before making them watch them eat. Mother lays down the law: remain respectful or you leave.

Watching Haddad mime a famished Kouriv devouring food at a banquet table was wonderfully unsettling, reminding me of Dario Fo doing his “Hunger of the Zanni” schtick, although there he went so far as to devour his arm. Comrade Kouriv starts out with bad table manners but quickly learns how to be polite — that is, to do what is expected in order to survive. By that point, Workhorse has laid out the entire structure of how our species forms and adapts relationships, from social constraints to the breakdown thereof. By the time husband-and-wife Isaac and Isabelle have an extended knock-down, drag-out brawl, we have the etiology of human aggression neatly outlined in both micro and macro scales. And all without a blackboard chart and laser pointer.

Director Buescher is on the faculty of the Brown/Trinity Repertory Consortium, teaching physical theater both there and at the Yale School of Drama and the University of Connecticut. In his director’s notes, Buescher cites the following: “Cesar Cha¬vez forming the United Farm Workers Union... Nelson Mandela fighting apartheid . . . Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat . . . Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot . . .” and goes on to observe that “revolution is visceral response from people compelled to enact change.” Adding the Gunpowder Plot was a good and clarifying touch, because it includes the crazies. Remember, he said it is visceral response, not should be. As long as Workhorse continues to show how people are, rather than instructing them how to be, their work will be compelling rather than strident.

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