Kitchen Dog’s world premiere ‘Ruth’ puts people before politics; WTT’s ‘Boeing’ takes off
It’s remarkable how quickly the power shifts — and how desperate and spiteful people can be to hold onto it. A generation ago, Okies, fleeing the Dust Bowl of the Plains during the Great Depression, flooded into California for work on the thriving plantations in such numbers, the Golden State actually passed a law banning any fellow Americans from other states to immigrate if they were poor. Some Hispanics, meanwhile, lived well as wealthy landowners and powerful politicians.
But the anti-immigration sentiment has since flip-flopped. Now, Oklahoma has a law banning undocumented (read: Latino) residents and penalizing Oklahomans who help them. Thus, the descendants of those who were treated as inferiors unironically turned the tables, holding others in the same contempt they had been.
The parallel lives of these two generations, with an overlay of biblical revisionism, is at the heart of Vicki Caroline Cheatwood’s Ruth, receiving its world premiere as the centerpiece of Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival. In Act 1, set in 1939 Cali, Ruth (Liza Marie Gonzalez) is a newlywed widowed on her wedding night, who joins forces with her mother-in-law Naomi (Gail Cronauer) in defiance of her rich but disapproving Hispanic family. Naomi, herself recently widowed, is being kicked out of her home, owned by Ruth’s parents, and compelled to return to her native Oklahoma.
In Act 2, set in OKC in 2007, Naomi (a different one) is homeless, living in a shelter with her daughter-in-law Ruth (again, a different one), an illegal who can’t get work because of the Oklahoma law. That rankles Boaz (Clay Yokum), a cannery owner who feels a Christian obligation to help his fellow man. How can people turn a blind eye to the suffering of others?
Ruth is a challenging but accessible play, where the humanity supersedes ideology, but that’s also where it’s most divisive. Cheatwood leaves it to the audience to fill in many of the connections, like the neural pathways in a child’s brain. In that way, its subtext is a stinging indictment of right-wing hatemongering (not just in immigration, but in women’s issues) that uses Christian charity against the very jingoists who employ religion as a cudgel; and yet, there’s little in the text that marks it as polemical. Ruth is a Yellow Dog Democrat play masquerading as a biblical parallel. (As in revisionist academic analyses of the Old Testament, the play hints at a less-than-motherly relationship between Naomi and Ruth — and, for that matter, that Boaz might be gay — but not much comes of it.)
Death permeates Ruth in the same way it does much of Steinbeck’s work; the similarities especially to The Grapes of Wrath, but also Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row are unmistakable. (The theme hits even closer to home knowing that Cheatwood’s husband died just weeks ago while the play was still being written.) And as written, Ruth is slightly better than the production (Cronauer in particular often rushes through her lines, and some staging needs sharpening). But Cronauer’s breakdown, and the relevance of its message, mark this play as a treasure.
Less of a treasure, at least in my book, is Marc Camoletti’s 1960s sex farce Boeing- Boeing. It was written in 1965, and the current production at WaterTower Theatre (complete with most of a cast that performed it last year at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth) is set in 1968. You couldn’t set it much later; it was written at the height of the Swinging ‘60s, when a sexually active stewardesses (“I’m Rhonda, fly me”) and free love were timely and contemporary.
But everything else about the play has dated faster than campaign posters. Introduce a smartphone app, HIV or even the Equal Rights Amendment into the mix, and the jokes just don’t make sense. When a play is so fragile that its very modernness works against it, you have a problem.
Of course, most farces — from Moliere to Mel Brooks — rely both on the currency of their wit and the universality of physical comedy. If you can master the latter, perhaps people won’t linger on the former.
That’s pretty much true with WaterTower’s production, which benefits from the buttoned-down clowning of Andy Baldwin as Robert, a milquetoast functionary caught up in his friend Bernard’s (Ashley Wood) sexual juggling act. Bernard is engaged to three flight attendants — a German, an Italian and an American — all of whom come and go without knowledge of the other, meaning Bernard gets laid more than shag carpeting at a remnants sale. Of course, that situation implodes when all the ladies show up at the same time.
Door-slamming comedies like this depend on timing (good here) but also the willing suspension of disbelief that I for one can never give myself over to entirely: Why does it take 10 minutes for a woman to grab her purse out of the other room? Why does no one hear the shouting from one room away? Why do the men always call each other “old chap”? (That’s an especially frustrating one.) And Boeing air-traffics in stereotypes to such a degree, we’d never accept them in another context (the German, Gretchen, eats only German food? The American has a Southern accent and likes molasses on everything? Yuk.)
But if you can put these things out of your mind — as well as several accents that come and go faster than Travolta accusers — Boeing is a lot of fun. Baldwin’s weak-chinned antics can squeeze laughs out of a corpse, especially when he’s pretending to be gay; Wood and Lulu Ward (as a saucy French maid — stereotype!) also ham it up with infectious delight. I may not be a convert to Camoletti’s arch style of broad comedy, but I’m a Baldwin believer.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 1, 2012.