The Playgoer: REVIEW: The Cataract

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Friday, March 31, 2006

REVIEW: The Cataract

The Cataract
by Lisa D'Amour, directed by Katie Pearl
at The Women's Project (in previews)

A stuck-up Minnesota married couple takes in a pair of sultry lovers from the Bayou as farm workers and wacky things ensue. Seen that sitcom before? (Or was it a Pauly Shore movie?) Even if you haven't you can guess the Southerners, even though they talk funny and seem slow and dimwitted at first, will show those Northerners how to open up and live a little. It being "the past" to boot, sexuality is another area in need of loosening up, with one of the couples practically frigid and the other doing it like rabbits. I'll let you guess which is which.

To be fair to playwright Lisa D'Amour, her play The Cataract is written above the level of Hollywood and aspires to a more poetic insight about repressed desire and the plight of souls trapped in social roles. The culture clash of these Lutherans and "Loosianans" forces all the characters to confront issues of masculinity and femininity. But what should be a tense and tight four-way domestic power struggle diffuses into a meandering two-act script that cannot sustain interest in its predictable outcomes. D'Amour's characters are given to random wit, which makes for some laughs, but I would gladly have foregone the jokes in exchange for more psychological credibility. Naturalism is not necessarily the goal here, though, as Katie Pearl's effectively stylized direction reinforces. Then again, with this material, such abstraction and exaggeration of the characters' regional qualities ends up highlighting the play's trading in stereotypes.

D'Amour's insistence on setting up a Northern vs. Southern dynamic actually masks a much more interesting narrative of class underpinning it, and from which the regional accents and humor keep distracting. But such a focus would need to invoke the social forces of a surrounding specific world, which the script and Pearl's abstract production willfully shut out. The characters are sensitively drawn in a poetic sense, but remain sketches, fixed ideas, even as they explore their hidden desires (staged by Pearl in some visually arresting dream sequences). The Cataract displays some sensitive writing and a strong cast. But, unsatisfying as either social/historical or psychological drama, it doesn't culminate in any dramatic impact.


Jason Grote said...

I couldn’t disagree more. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m friends with Lisa D’Amour and Katie Pearl, but my issue here is not personal but ideological/aesthetic. Any individual response is valid, of course, but there are a number of assumptions in this review, mostly relating to the relative value of psychological realism as a (or, as it were, THE) theatrical discourse. The characters in THE CATARACT have psychological depth, but it isn’t expressed in subtext as in the Stanislavskian mode – it’s externalized, in dream sequences and a sort of visual and aural code. I would put this play in the tradition of German Expressionism, Brecht, literary magic realists, or such American avant-gardists as Maria Irene Fornes or Adrienne Kennedy, not in the mode of psychological realism. They don’t “defy expectations” or have subtext, because they’re not meant to. It may not be one’s cup of tea, but to say it’s somehow failing at what a play is “supposed to do” is like saying Abstract Expressionists are bad artists because their people don’t look like people.

Do we really need more “realistic” plays that don’t reflect the reality of anyone I know? Or plays full of “surprises” that don’t really surprise anyone? Does anyone really need a play to tell us that people are not always what they seem? My own theory on the matter is that American art is so obsessed with “realism” as a vernacular, even well into the 21st Century, precisely because American culture is actively eradicating the boundaries between reality and fantasy, whether in the Disneyland or Las Vegas mode, through suburban sprawl, or through constructions like “reality TV.” The illusion does not reflect reality – it’s just a slightly more convincing illusion.

So, while I stand be my repeated assertions that THE CATARACT is a great piece of art, if your taste runs more towards kitchen-sink realism — or, for that matter, documentary theatre, or the more distant, cerebral sort of avant-gardism practiced by the Richards Foreman or Maxwell—this is probably not the play for you. But if you like Mary Zimmerman, or the recent productions of [sic] or MOLLY’s DREAM at Soho Rep, then I highly recommend checking it out…

Playgoer said...

A fair critique of my review, I think, to be honest.

I did get very clearly the play's not aiming at naturalism, though. Perhaps I should have made that clearer. I believe what I say in the review that since it doesn't offer psychological realism it better have something else going for it. My theatrical taste is probably grounded in realism, but I've had a long appreciation of many artists of alternative styles.

I do see the Fornes influence very clearly. And if I were a bigger Fornes fan I might have liked this more, true. But I also think its basic premise and content is not nearly as original as Fornes.

I loved Molly's Dream by the way, which carved out a totally original fantasy word, while "Cataract" struck me as very familiar.

And I love, love, love Mary Zimmerman. I see her touch in Pearl's directing style (and I'm aware of Pearl's Chicago connections). But it helps Zimmerman's shows that she's staging amazing mythic material. D'Amour's script fall short of Ovid for me.

Anyway, Jason, I apologize to readers and the artists if my review was glib. But this is a blog, and while some shows I can write more extensively on, here I just wanted to get my basic gut impressions out. If it reveals my biases, so be it. And I'm glad you've posted an alternative view to offer readers a different side.

If you read any other reviews (blogs or MSM) that you feel make the case for the play, I welcome you to post the links here in Comments.

Aaron Riccio said...

I put up a review of "The Cataract," too. Not so much a theatrical discourse though, as to its roots or anything, just a brief press statement of sorts that I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I was thoroughly confused by most of the second act.

I didn't have a problem with the accents, and the comparison to Pauly Shore (even as an aside) made me cringe a little - that's a bit harsh for any show. It's important to remain aware that this is a very stylized show, from the repetition of key events to the very dictation of the lines (which sort of abnegates the accents, if anything).

I do agree that there is a sense of these characters being sketches, especially since many of the themes brought up, ala "Brokeback Mountain," aren't ever explored. I think this fits with what Mr. Grote pointed out, in that the subtext is in the dream sequences - unfortunately, there are very few dream sequences.

I just want to see Katie Pearl direct "Machinal" for the Women's Project. Not only would it be a good play for them, and a pretty good show to be seen revived these days (although I think it's been done fairly recently), but the use of a hyper-stylized and minimalist set would do wonders for the message itself "Machinal" has to tell.

But I digress! You, Playgoer, do hit on a bunch of the things I wound up passing over, which is that, in retrospect, these characters are still stereotypes, even though they're anachronistic, too. (Then again, I'm not the history buff, so I could be wrong...but at least to the casual observer, odd themes for a 19th century setting.) Oh, and they're pretty damn well acted stereotypes, too. It's always hard to seem natural within the confines of the unnatural; I think the cast of "The Cataract" pulls that off rather well.