Review #3 of 3: THE SECRETARY by Theatre en Bloc
by Michael Meigs
People all around us were laughing, as if somehow they were watching a completely different performance from the one being presented to us.
But it wasn’t, of course. Already during the first act of The Secretary at the Rollins Theatre last Saturday night I was wondering how our perceptions were differing from the people that Theatre en Bloc was successfully entertaining.
At the intermission Karen looked at me, misery in her eyes. “I can’t take any more of this.”
I nodded, understanding, but told her I felt obliged to stay. I write about theatre, after all, and the good and talented team led by Jenny Lavery had given me a pair of comps. “I can give you the keys; you can wait in the car.”
“I’ll find someplace. It’s okay.” I learned later that the stage dialogue is piped out to the lobby of the Rollins. She asked for help from the box office manager, who opened a room where she could wait out the second act without being obliged to listen to it.
Playwright Kyle John Schmidt knows his stuff. The evidence is the string of productions of pieces that he’s written, including during his recent days at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. He meticulously crafts his plots. He gives ace actors like Babs George and the five othe rtalented women in this cast well defined personages, however strange, whom they can infuse with zeal and emotion. So why were we not on his wavelength?
Years ago — many decades ago, perhaps about the time that FCC commissioner Newton Minnow branded television “a vast wasteland” — someone produced a statistic about how many violent deaths American children witnessed on TV and in the movies. Thousands and thousands. And don’t forget television news, which dwells ghoulishly on catastrophe in a combination of prurient fascination and careful avoidance of shocking images. Our culture mines murder for entertainment. Oh, maybe it isn’t really murder, because we don’t have to look at it.
On the same day that crowds mostly of young persons marched nationwide against gun violence and the images of brave Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and their friends became talismans of hope, we’d sat in the Rollins black box at Austin’s Long center and watched Schmidt’s droll but deadly serious caricatures of people who cling to guns in hopes of protection.
By the way, did your Facebook feed include any photos of the seventeen dead bodies at Parkland High?
Think back to 9/11 — did U.S. television carry images of live flailing bodies falling the hundred stories from the Towers? European news did. We saw that horror.
The first possible explanation that occurred to me for our disconnect was vaguely related to those considerations. Neither of us has ever watched television; we have no connection whatsoever with the fantasy worlds, good and bad, marketed by American media companies. Only rarely do we see contemporary films. Perhaps, just perhaps, four decades of disconnect from American media, much of that time abroad, has left us wired differently, unable to achieve the ironic distance that makes Schmidt’s situations and characters seem not just absurd but also laughable.
Death by gunshot wound is not funny for us. Especially not as satire. And murder stories delivered by blank-eyed killers are not funny.
Only once before, years ago, did I label an Austin theatre production “obscene.” My objection then was fundamentally the playwright’s derisive portrayal of people who are down and out, victims of the shattered American dream. Schmidt does the same thing with The Secretary. He’s not trying to change the mind of anyone in his audience; he’s inviting right-thinking people to sneer.
And worse, he offers not the least glimpse of any way out of our greatest national curse. For anyone.
In this play, those who cling to guns either murder without apology — because those guns develop the obstinate tendency to go off on their own, or so they claim — or face death by the gun, as in the endless horror of waiting in the final scene. It’s the ultimate tease: the refusal to close the circle, proof of the playwright’s delight at our enduring despair.
March 23 - April 08, 2018
701 Riverside at South First,
Austin, TX, 78704
Performances Thursdays - Sundays at 8 pm
The Secretary will be presented in Rollins Studio Theatre for a three-week run of eleven performances, beginning March 23 and ending April 8.
Pre-sale tickets are available for Long Center Members starting Wednesday, February 14, and single tickets will go on sale Friday, February 16 at 10 a.m.
Tickets for The Secretary will be available at TheLongCenter.org or by calling (512) 474.LONG (5664). Also available at the Long Center’s 3M Box Office located at 701 West Riverside Drive at South First Street. For groups of 10 and more, please call 512-457-5150 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[photo by Errich Petersen]