Sometimes artistic ambition outstrips the capabilities of the creators. This is not exactly a bad thing: the artist has to crash into his limits to know what they are. Although the audience feels let down when this happens, it is part of the compact in live theater. Everyone shares the risk of failure, just as they share the glory of achievement. And while it is quite an achievement for a small theater company in Raleigh to produce the American premiere of British playwright David Edgar's final installment of his Iron Curtain trilogy, the result, as seen on preview night, is far less than glorious.
Burning Coal Theatre Company has previously presented the first two plays in Edgar's cycle, with considerable success. The third, The Shape of the Table, requires more resources than BCTC has been able to supply. Its title refers to the infamous seven-month squabble over that very issue that preceded the Paris Peace Accords which were — after much more bombing — to end the Viet Nam War. The play, like that dispute, is long and unwieldy, with a cast of 15. Unlike the preceding Prisoner's Dilemma, in which the underlying questions and problems seem timeless, the story in Table feels dated, and almost irrelevant, even though there are some parallels to the here-and-now US political situation. It could also be summed up in one phrase: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
Under Jerome Davis' direction, the play opens with an extended prologue in which a man (Pavel Prus, sort of a Vaclav Havel type, played by James Anderson) paces nervously in a room set with a large table and chairs while assorted older Rolling Stones songs blast. The action is supposedly set in 1989, in an unnamed Soviet bloc country in eastern Europe, where the unrest in the streets has become impossible for the government to ignore or control, but the songs chosen are not from the moment and don't seem to have anything to do with anything. The Who's 1971 "Won't Get Fooled Again" might have been a more appropriate choice, though still anachronistic. ("…We'll be fighting in the streets/With our children at our feet/And the morals that they worship will be gone….") The man frequently looks out the "windows" where indecipherable projections flicker.
The room is supposed to be huge, formerly a ballroom in a grand palace, which had been converted to a government building used by successive totalitarian regimes. It is not possible to make grand space in the modest, circumscribed area available to the players at Burning Coal, and despite their best efforts to generate it by description, the stage remained awkwardly cramped and unconvincing. Even less convincing were the table and the chairs. I will confess to instantly developing a pounding headache when I saw those metal folding chairs. They are so wrong. No high-level meeting room of a European government — no matter how poor — would have the ministers sitting on metal folding chairs. It was impossible to get past them and suspend disbelief — every time one was moved, which was often, it made clanging noise that drowned bits of dialogue. A strange whining whir offstage periodically caused the same problem.
The actors made valiant efforts, but the direction did not allow much room for them to develop their characters or to ratchet up the tension. Things started off loud and angry and stayed that way, without apparent reason. David Edgar is a fine playwright, but he is no Tom Stoppard when it comes to idea or wordplay, and much of the dialogue here is obtuse, bombastic, or simply leaden. And predictable, horribly predictable, right down to the hoary old joke about who abuses whom in capitalism versus communism (man and man in capitalism — vice versa in communism). The play's one great surprise is an outburst by a meek secretary — as opposed to Secretary, of which there are too many, present and former, to track without help, not forthcoming, from the program.
This secretary, one Victoria Brodskaya, played by PJ Maske, has been round-shoulderedly scribbling notes and passing out lists for the revolutionary opposition that has forced meetings with the government. ("…take a bow for the new revolution…") Out of the blue, one of the men for whom she toils asks what she would demand. And honey, she lets them have it. Her back straightens, her voice swells and for one minute the clarion call to true change and moral behavior rings out. But this not being an actual fairy tale — an analogy that is beaten nearly to death throughout the play — in which a bell ringing signals "happily ever after," power politics as usual soon prevail once again. ("…there's nothing in the street looks any different to me….")
Although there is irony latent in many of the speeches by various characters, only Julie Oliver as Vera Rousova makes it explicit. Rousova is the honorary chair of the National Peasant Party, and she first appears in a mink coat. Later, after she's been co-opted with a seat at the table, she appears in a rich red suit and gets some ripping lines about "exchanging Pravda for Playboy." ("…I'll tip my hat to the new constitution…")
Only near the very end do we get a really engaging scene, between the resigning Prime Minister (Peter Tedeschi, dignified throughout) and the deposed progressive leader Victor Spassov (beautifully played by Tom McCleister), who has been brought back and then jettisoned again. The men talk quietly and seriously. It wasn't "pilot error," they agree. They were not betrayed by saboteurs but just "weren't up to it." ("…they decide and the shotgun sings the song…") Like Burning Coal's in this instance, their ambitions were greater than their capabilities.
The Shape of the Table runs through April 24; for details, see the sidebar.
Note: For the lyrics of the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" all in one convenient place, see http://www.purelyrics.com/index.php?lyrics=lgatwosh.