The Nightingale Theater's Tape, directed by Sara Neely Cruncleton and written by Stephen Belber, pits two old friends against one another in a linguistic struggle for redemption.
Vince has come to Lansing, Mich., at the behest of an old friend from high school, Jon, who has his film featured in a local film festival. However, Vince has a plan to wring a confession out of Jon, a confession of a rape 10 years ago that he will record and give to the victim, Amy. She, a mutual friend from high school whom they both dated, also happens to be in town, and her arrival at Vince's shabby motel room brings the evening to a boiling point.
The lights come up on a shirtless Vince (John Cruncleton) standing in his shabby motel room, crushed beer cans scattered across the carpet. He plunges to the floor and feverishly performs several push-ups, immediately calling to mind Maria Irene Fornes's Conduct of Life, another play that features rape as one of its central themes.
Orlando, the antagonist of Conduct of Life, shares a sweaty, macho persona with Vince, Tape's anti-hero. Unlike Orlando, however, Vince has little drive or conviction. Even his best friend, Jon (Joseph Gomez), calls him "spineless." Whereas Orlando's push-ups go on interminably, for several stage moments, Vince almost instantly jumps up again, stomping around his motel room and engaging in sophomoric drinking rituals.
It's important to point out that, although Vince has a performative personality, one which craves attention and approval from his inner critics, Cruncleton himself does not perform these antics solely to provoke laughter. This strong choice provides us valuable insight into his character.
Furthermore, unlike the sadistic Orlando, Vince is not the play's villain, despite his violent tendencies, drug abuse, alcoholism, and various unresolved "issues." He is Jon's antagonist, tricking and goading him into an articulate confession of his crime.
Watching Cruncleton circle Gomez with both his body and his language is one of the production's real pleasures. It is as if Vince has forgone ambition in all other aspects of his life in order to focus his energies on this one night.
In previous productions, Gomez has been typically cast as a morally upstanding and earnest young suitor, and I was excited to see him cast as a villain, or at least as someone who had done a Very Bad Thing. In this play, however, I saw him portray a morally upstanding and earnest young suitor who happened to have done a Very Bad Thing. Which is fine, really. It's not as if the text doesn't support that reading. I just wish he had played more with the character's escape onto the perch of detached moralism or his retreat into the filmmaker's world of ideals and language, both of which were present in the text but glossed over in the performance.
Not that this production ignores language. In fact, its most precise moments are the beats that Vince provokes from Jon an exact description of the evening in question, and demands that he provide him an articulate definition of rape. Both actors' use of language is clear, especially in these exchanges.
Less precise is Cassie Hollis's portrayal of Amy.
I won't pretend that I'm able to comprehend the psychology or emotional experience of a woman in Amy's position, and therefore won't pretend that my opinion about Hollis's performance holds much weight. I can only speak to what I saw.
Amy reveals that, in the 10 years since high school, she has become an assistant defense attorney. This is the last thing Jon wants to hear, by the way, and the news devastates him; you can see his knees wobble when he hears it. However, though Amy talks about her new job, Hollis isn't physically living it. Someone as high up the legal ladder as Amy wields a lot of power, but Hollis's use of physical space is minimal. This is true even before she realizes Jon, her rapist, is in the vicinity.
If she had initially entered the space with energy and confidence, then found herself physically diminished by Jon's unexpected appearance, I would attribute the minimalism to a choice on the actor's part. As it is, I must attribute it to mere habit.
I found her vocality similarly diminished, and therefore wanting. At times I had trouble hearing her, even in a space as intimate as the Nightingale.
Amy's denial of the rape is a major puzzle that any actor playing this part must solve. The director must assist, and ultimately authorize, that solution and its portrayal. As I understood the performance, Amy denied the rape for two reasons. Of all the people with whom to discuss her rape, these two men are likely to be her least favorite candidates. Therefore she denies the rape simply to end the conversation and move on with her life.
She also denies it to gain control over these men, to render them as powerless as rape rendered her. She calls the police and informs them of the rape and of Vince's drug abuse. They ask her why she has turned them in and she replies, "Because I wanted to."
It's a powerful textual moment, but the performance glosses over it.
Sara Neely Cruncleton instead chooses to highlight Amy's "When you die" speech. Though I am glad neither director nor actor turned that speech into an opportunity to chew scenery. Amy's motivations behind her speech were unclear to me. Cruncleton has Hollis walk downstage and face the audience for much of this speech, a choice that disempowered Amy. This speech is the only occasion in which Amy directly and unabashedly gives voice to her anger; having Hollis facing away from her rapist rather than facing him down robbed the speech of its power.
Despite these shortcomings, Tape holds its audience rapt. The throughline is clear, and Jon's disintegration is, admittedly, a pleasure to watch. It's also a great script, and I'm embarrassed to admit I've never heard of Stephen Belber before. Much thanks to the people at the Nightingale for directing my attention to him.
By the by, this production also has the best poster you will see this season. At least, other companies will be hard-pressed to top its visual impact, thematic relevance, and elegance.
Tape plays August 29 and 30 at 8pm at 1416 E. 4th St. Visit www.nightingaletheater.com or call 633-8666 for more details.
If this production isn't up your alley this weekend, catch a one-night-only showcase of three local artists at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. The exhibit, "The Liars Circle", boasts the work of three brothers, Jerob, Erwin and Frank Newton, and features music, poetry, paintings and experimental films. Call Jerry Newton at 605-6884 for more details.
The M. A. Doran Gallery has on display works that "give a whimsical view of the ordinary." The exhibit closes on August 30, so see it while you can. Call 748-8700 or visit www.madorangallery.com for more details.
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