My Own Private Iowa
What happens when an urban gay teen moves to Iowa
Published: April 3, 2013
Written By Daniel Talbott, directed by Steven J. Satta
Through April 13 at Baltimore Theatre Project
In recent years and especially in recent months, younger visual artists seem to have agreed that it is one of their primary tasks to respond to the digital world and its overwhelming sets of new visual information. Theater faces an altogether different set of challenges. Film and television have already struck their blows at the medium, and something about the immediacy of the stage has enabled it to move forward according to the logic of the body and to remain largely unchanged by technology (the technological extravagances of something like Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark notwithstanding). The real people on the stage give the make-believe of the theater an authenticity—equivalent to slow food in the culinary scene—that is hard to beat.
But there are things that film is unquestionably better at. Moving back and forth in time or shifting between temporal frames of reference is one of them. Flashbacks are inherent to the visual vocabulary of film, but onstage they have usually been dealt with as a verbal, rather than a dramaturgical matter. When Sophocles wants to reveal Oedipus’ past, he has a messenger come report it.
The very thing that makes stage so compelling—the human body—makes it difficult to slip fluidly between time frames, and this is a sign of the audacity of Daniel Talbott’s play Slipping and the Iron Crow Theatre Company’s very qualified success in staging it.
Slipping takes place in “Iowa (The Present)” and “San Francisco (The Past)” according to the playbill, and opens with the protagonist Eli (Tanner Medding) lying on a hospital bed, watched over by his mother as he awakes from a suicide attempt (his wrists are bandaged). We understand that, from this vantage, Eli slips back and forth between what is actually the more- and less-recent past.
The queer, pink-haired punk Eli is understandably dismayed as he tries to get used to Iowa, where his always-distant mother (Michele Minnick) just accepted a job as department chair at the university, after moving from San Francisco in the wake of his father’s death. There is just the right amount of ambivalence, understanding, and recrimination in the relationship between Eli and his mother. In one scene, his mother asks if there are any cute boys at school, acknowledging that Eli is gay; after some perfectly angsty off-puttingness, he responds that there is with a bashful grin.
Jake, the boy at school, is played with a huge, goofy charisma by Rich Buchanan. Wearing a backwards baseball cap, he just can’t quit grinning, providing Medding’s Eli with another opportunity to show the depth of his character. As they do with his mother, his moods swoop between sullen, stoic, and shyly excited—but in an entirely different range. Eventually, the two become lovers and Jake is outed, with no big repercussions. “Your mom’s not the only Democrat in Iowa,” Jake tells Eli.
But juxtaposed with this story is the backstory—flashback scenes of Eli’s abusive relationship with Chris (Christopher H. Zargarbashi) in California. To hear Eli tell Jake about Chris, he was magnetic, but when we see the relationship play out, we learn that Chris is a self-hating, abusive prick. When Chris, seemingly a lacrosse jock, approaches Eli, he pulls out his dick and waves it around as he has “it” address Eli in a super-creepy voice. (If you’re not comfortable seeing cock, you probably don’t want to go to this performance as both Zargarbashi and Medding display theirs.)
Chris orders Eli to undress as he plays video games; he threatens Eli, saying repeatedly that he will kill him if he ever tells anyone about their affair; he is extraordinarily cruel at Eli’s father’s funeral.
While Chris could have the most conflicted (and so, the most interesting) character, Zargarbashi plays him as a flat, one-dimensional asshole. It’s hard to believe that Eli would like this guy—and the dialogue itself makes Chris seem more like he would be a surfer-type than a lacrosse dude.
Some interesting things happen as a result of the Chris scenes—rural Iowa seems more accepting of homosexuality than cosmopolitan San Francisco— but the scenes also force the hand of the production into some relatively troublesome decisions.
The relationship with Chris is the one place where Eli’s character falters. Medding is spectacular with Minnick and Buchanan, both of whom bring out new facets of his character and, it should be said, both of whom are far less annoying than his Green Day-punk posturing. But it may be too much to ask that he be able to act believably with all three—especially when Zargarbashi doesn’t give him very much to work with. Where there should be a really dark sadomasochistic sexual energy between them, there is only overacting and bafflement.
Perhaps these scenes were intended to show how Chris is just acting his way through life. But the Chris story line almost turns Slipping into something like a queer after-school special—an issue play. It’s not that issues aren’t important, but they shouldn’t feel heavy-handed. Worse still, however, is the dramatic strategy of staging these shifts. As a result of the time shifting, the play is performed in numerous short scenes, so that it feels more like watching a series of YouTube clips than watching a film. Perhaps it was Talbott’s intention to create a play that would respond to the jumpiness of the digital world, but at least in this production, the experiment fails, forever taking us out of the two relationships at the core of this play, as if Talbott didn’t trust them to carry enough weight.
In order to make the transitions work, the play also relies on several “stand-up”-style monologues where Eli (and in one case, Jake) stands in front of a brick wall with a microphone and a bright spotlight, and this little gimmick contains everything that is worst about pretentious theater.
The overt reliance on a piped-in 1980s mopefest soundtrack to do a lot of the drama’s emotional lifting heightens the feeling that someone didn’t trust the material enough to let it speak for itself. I’m not against dramatic experiments, but if you experiment, you should find something new and interesting that addresses the heart of what happens onstage, instead of leading it astray.
The lack of faith in the fundamental dramatic situation—the present— is a shame, because Eli’s relationships with his mother and with Jake are powerfully written and gorgeously acted by Medding, Minnick, and Buchanan, and the play is well-worth seeing for that alone. Add some exceptionally funny dialogue, and one can overlook the failed experiments with time and technology.
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