Saturday, May 15, 2010

Discipline and Punish

I went into Crystal Skillman's The Vigil, or The Guided Cradle, with high hopes. The subject matter, torture, is of keen interest to me, but also one that would lend itself to easy polemics. The parallel story premise--in modern-day Prague an American Girl and a Translator meet before a beautiful clock tower there was blinded by the king and his son tried to bomb it in revenge, "while" in the 15th(ish) century, the king's torturers and a new one who specializes in sleep deprivation are assigned to deal with the bomber--suggested a more tactful approach. As far as the subject matter goes, this is true. Instead of lecturing on the evils of torture, the theme is integrated naturally into the construction of the play. The play itself, however, is more problematic (as far as writing goes. The direction was fine throughout, the actors generally well-cast—and good at covering for a curtain that was accidentally ripped down—and the staging simple and effective).

The 15th century storyline is written in modern everyday--which is to say graceless--English, which makes for a lot of attention-drawing anachronistic idioms; the word "cock" stands out like an actual one, and F-bombs are dropped indiscriminately throughout these scenes, perhaps even more than the ones set in modern times. Too often the characters sound more like typical movie thugs than inhabitants of a world that valued the richness of the spoken word, even in normal encounters. The modern ugliness of the language then collides with unsuccessful attempts to be poetic later on, during a scene when the sleep depriver, Ippolito, has a change of heart due to the purple-prosed protestations of an accused witch's daughter. Also hurting the play is a bumbling sidekick character that constantly sabotages the ostensibly somber mood of the piece. The best moments (Ippolito's introduction, in which he carries out the simple act of eating with menace, and a transition during which the Girl is tied up on a torture rack) are, not surprisingly those involving silence.

The modern story thread has its own problems, in the form of bizarre, melodramatic plot twists; the Girl's father, we find out, is a CIA torturer who has the Translator's brother in custody, and so the Translator kidnaps her. She manages to kill him, and then later ends up visiting the brother in custody (he's hooded and bound) to deliver the play's denouement and strain the play's remaining plausibility to the breaking point.

While the action of the two storylines ended up blending/overlapping well--thanks to the smooth direction--there were no real reasons outside the thematic that they should be connected at all. The program listed some eight or ten development programs the play went through (I'm not even exaggerating), and my hunch is that too much tinkering diluted the original idea, which already had some problems (irreconcilable differences in the stories) to begin with.

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