Monday, August 13, 2012
Every year I see three plays: a Shakespeare play at Bard on the Beach, a hybrid play at the PuSh Festival and a contemporary play. This year's contemporary play was an Actor's Equity Co-op/Paige 18 production of Mike Batistick's Chicken (2007), which just completed its run at the Havana Restaurant Theatre. Rather than provide my own synopsis, here is what I found on doollee.com:
Wendell's wife, Lina, is pregnant. His wayward best friend, Floyd, sleeps nightly on their couch. And as if things aren't stressful enough, he's under constant pressure to "father" his messed-up neighbors in the Bronx. In an effort to get some money together, Wendell takes in a rooster to train for an illegal cockfight. As they discover that training a bird for a death match in Washington Heights is not for the faint of heart, this dysfunctional family comes to blows before the fight ever takes place. In this devilish comedy, playwright Mike Batistick investigates power, community and loss, and searches for grace in the most unlikely places.
While I enjoyed watching this play, as I do all plays, "good" or "bad," what struck me most about Chicken was either a) the unexamined suppositions behind its construction, or b) the author's unacknowledged attempt at allegory.
"Floyd" is Cuban, or part Cuban, something that is brought to our attention early on, in the form of an essentialism that has him genetically disposed to training chickens to fight. Cuban or part Cuban, Floyd stands in for the immigrant, versus Wendell, who, if only because his ethnicity goes unmentioned, is not. Floyd is aggressive, violent even, a taker, while Wendell is passive, benevolent, morally upstanding, beleaguered, fearful (chicken?) and, as a result of his love of McDonald's, fat. (As for the women in this play, they exist only to further "Floyd" and "Wendell"'s binary relationship.)
To not read this play as a commentary on a country in decline ("Wendell") based on the consequences of its immigration policy ("Floyd") is difficult, yet nowhere in Colin Thomas and Mark Leiren-Young's recent reviews in the Georgia Straight and Vancouver Sun, respectively, was this mentioned. I wonder why? Is it that we have stopped looking for allegory (intended or otherwise) when watching contemporary U.S. plays, focused as we are on watching for elements of all modern U.S. plays, from O'Neill to Williams to Shepard to Shanley (not to mention TV sitcoms like The King of Queens)? Or has this racist, anti-immigration narrative become so entrenched in the white North American psyche that it, like the immigrant Other, has become "naturalized"?
The last time I felt this way came after watching Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997), an art house dissection of U.S. foreign policy disguised as a studio action film. Whether Batistick was as in control of his material as Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier were of theirs remains to be seen. In the meantime (and in the words of Shanley), I have my doubts.