September 11. At the risk of terrible understatement, I imagine that for many years to come this day will hold great significance for myself and millions of Americans. Where were you when…? Did you know anyone that…?
As devastating as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were in 2001, one of the immediate results of those incidents was to create a feeling of national community. Tragedy, as always, served as an immediate way to unite people. We witnessed hundreds of public ceremonies. Television specials abounded across the coaxial. Vigils were attended, prayers were said—and lines were drawn in the sand.
This Thursday last I found myself commemorating the events of two years ago by attending the Artist's Resource Center's production of Eric Bogosian's subUrbia. The play went up at the ARC's homebase--the AREA45 Theatre on Wall Street in downtown Asheville. For those who are aware of Mr. Bogosian's work, this might strike you as a strange viewing choice for such a significant day. Bogosian's pieces tend to embody the ideas of alienation and isolation within our shared humanity—usually by depicting bleak, raw-edged relationships between characters found at the desperate end of the societal spectrum. Not exactly community-embracing fare, to say the least.
UNC-Asheville graduate Jason Williams has taken a different approach in his direction of subUrbia. In his director's notes, Williams contends that the play has `several individuals coming together, looking to make some kind of connection, to form some kind of group. They want to be a part of something important bigger than themselves.” Williams then invites the audience to recognize their own communities through the work on the stage and, further, to embrace that sense of communal togetherness as an important part of our lives.
The production is well staged. Williams uses the space to the actor's advantage and shows a knack for focusing the audience's attention on the important moments in the script. The acting is inspired and at times even wonderful—led by superb performances from Willie Repoley, John Howard and Caitlin Rose. The production team succeeds in their ambitious attempt to place a suburban convenience store on the tiny stage at AREA45. The action is gritty and fast-paced, the individual moments are honest, and the emotional impact of the climax carries real weight. Yet the desired effect of community-building gets somehow lost in the shuffle.
This is because, at its heart, subUrbia is not really a play that embraces community. First performed in 1994, the story is that of friendship torn apart by betrayal, hatred, and the allure of fame and fortune. The setting is right out of a `Beavis and Butthead” episode, and the characters are easily recognizable to anyone who has seen Kevin Smith's movie, `Clerks”. At the time, these themes were easily identifiable with the ubiquitous `Generation X”. But in this post-9/11 era, the messages of the play have taken a perceptible shift.
Williams has brought us the brand new, 2003 version of Gen-X values. The emphasis on the current nature of the setting is achieved through some judicious reworking of Bogosian's script: `Bill Clinton” becomes `George Dubya”, and the racial slur, `dot-head” morphs predictably into `terrorist”. It is in this second example that we experience the difference that a decade makes. In the script, the only origination of community occurs in the form of identification with common enemies and the polarization of society necessary to make such an anti-community possible.
These enemies take the form of several societal stereotypes: both pop- and counter-culture, opposite sexes, and the aforementioned "terrorists". This is eerily similar to the profuse rhetoric issued forth by our current Administration and the less liberal of our national media outlets. We are expected to display our requisite sense of national unity through identification with groups defined by its opposite, by those who are "not like us".
Mistrust, fractious behavior and isolationism are the by-products of such anti-community. And, truthfully, it is hard to ignore these politicized overtones--especially on September 11. This is a vastly different take on a piece that ten years ago addressed the plight of the individual in a world with no more ground to break, no more wilderness to explore.
Before I go too far with my neo-Marxist rant, let me sum up this review by offering this advice. Go see subUrbia. It is intelligent theatre, theatre that encourages the audience to think and self-evaluate. Read the inventively designed playbill and draw your own conclusions about the play's themes. Keep in mind your own communities and how they relate to a larger world. And, most of all, be thankful for our Asheville arts community that makes such work possible and accessible.