By Bill Marx
David Gow’s earnest, intelligent drama about the fragility of identity, though somewhat glibly reassuring, generates powerful moments in this bare-bones production from the Acropolis Stage Company.
Cherry Docs by David Gow. Directed by Evan Turissini. Staged by the Acropolis Stage Company at The Rockwell, Davis Square, Somerville, MA, through September 1.
Given the rise of Donald Trump and his enablement of white supremacist groups, David Gow’s Cherry Docs, a two-person play about a Toronto neo-Nazi who is on trial for kicking a South Asian immigrant to death, is nothing if not timely. Could there be a better moment for theater to explore the roots of xenophobia and antisemitism, to examine the growth of organized hate? And Gow’s earnest, intelligent drama about the fragility of identity, though somewhat glibly reassuring, generates powerful moments in this bare-bones production from the Acropolis Stage Company, a new fringe company in Boston.
Ironically, it is the issue of time that left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied with the ASC’s choice of script. Cherry Docs premiered back in 1998. We have had over 20 years for supremacist fanaticism to fester, to grow more media-savvy, to become more impregnable through the aid of anti-immigrant politicians. Commentators in the “mainstream” media suggest that white supremacist groups are not a threat in America; there are debates about how seriously we should take domestic terrorism. Little of this expanding fog of fury is reflected in this play, which hews closely to dramatizing the possible redemption of Michael, the murderous skinhead, through the love/hate efforts of his talented Jewish defense attorney, Danny Dunkelman, who in the course of the trial comes to face his uncertainties about his marriage and commitment to Judaism. The carefully calibrated balance between the two psyches in turmoil — one crawling toward certainty, the other toward unease — is Cherry Docs‘ strength and weakness. At this point, Western culture has slid a bit closer to chaos, so Gow’s study in containment via inner struggle comes off as dated, a touch nostalgic. Our theaters are going to have to grapple with societal contamination — the disease has spread to the higher echelons of the body politic.
All this is my way of asking: isn’t there a contemporary American play that deals with white supremacy and its legitimization? Its visceral connections with gun violence and the culture wars? That speaks to a post-Charlottesville (“good people on both sides”) world? Cherry Docs can’t be that kind of play. Michael is the lost soul who can be saved — once he has faced the horrific depths of his dehumanization. There is no question that, aside from his fellow gang members, the reprobate has any powerful sympathizers outside of the courtroom. In his efforts to save Michael, Dunkelman is forced (by the playwright) to interrogate himself, to question his liberal virtue. Society is left off the hook.
In terms of the drama as character study, the performances by Eliott Purcell, as the skinhead Michael, and David Anderson, as Dunkelman, are sturdy, though Anderson has a tendency to be somewhat too “big.” The Rockwell is a small space, which gives performers a valuable opportunity to underplay — to invite the audience to lean in to hear the dialogue. Anderson blasts too often, and that ends up flattening Dunkelman’s transformation — the lawyer is boisterous throughout, even when he is pained by doubt. Purcell is quieter and more effective, though I could use more intimations of irrational anger — for all his insecurities, Michael has to be a man who could explode, his steel-toed Doc Martens combat boots morphing into lethal weapons.
Finally, a polemical word about what it means to be a fringe theater today. I applaud ASC’s artistic director Evan Turissini’s decision to start up the company in perilous times. But the fringe has not just been about being small and operating on a modest budget. It has meant staging edgy, shocking, and innovative theater pieces, the kind of new work eschewed by the comfy mainstream houses. But Cherry Docs is a popular script; it is among the most produced plays in Canada, and it received its New England premiere at New Rep in 2010. If you are going to be fringe, then you should walk the outré walk.
The larger problem is that, over the past decade or so, wealthy theaters, the American Repertory Theater and the Huntington Theatre Company among them, have used branding to co-opt what is understood to be “alternative.” They claim that they are putting on risky fare — with a high professional gloss, of course. On the one hand, the A.R.T. proclaims it is “expanding the boundaries of theater”; on the other, it fearlessly develops audience-friendly musicals for Broadway consumption. The strategy is to market commercial fare as if it was daring — confusing the conventional with the cutting edge. Given the timidity and/or ignorance of our stage critics, this kind of “fake news” is easy to get away with. No one calls the companies on it, and audiences have been trained to believe what they are marketed.
The upshot is that real fringe theater is in danger of disappearing, and that is dangerous for the future of the stage. We need the gatecrashing attitude of the marginal more than ever before to create theater that challenges the status quo, that strikes out in genuinely fresh directions — directions that are not calculated to be profitable or stereotypically “empowering.” Over the past century or so, fringe theater has served an honorable role as an indispensable provocateur. Let’s hope ASC and other fringers carry on the iconoclastic torch.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.