SMILE, SMILE AGAINBy Justin Locklear
Ochre House Theater
Director – Justin Locklear
Original Music - Gregg Prickett & Aurora De Wilde
Scenic Artist - Izk Davies
Set Design – Justin Locklear & Izk Davies
Costume Design – Amie Carson
Props Design – Mitchell Parrack
Lighting Design – Kevin Grammer
Sound Design – Earl Jay Norman
Stage Management – Korey Parker
Madman – Mitchell Parrack
Soldier – Darren McElroy
Charity Worker – Marti Etheridge
Wice – Marcus Stimac
Warz –Gloria Benavides
Stranger – Kevin Grammer
Musicians – Gregg Prickett, Aurora De Wilde
Reviewed Performance: 4/29/2017
Reviewed by Mark-Brian Sonna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
I’ll start off by saying that I was thoroughly bored by the play but many people will be absolutely enthralled by it.
Ochre House Theater is known for pushing the envelope and exploring the boundaries of theatre. “Smile, Smile Again” by Justin Locklear walks a tightrope between brilliance and lunacy. By the divergent response of the audience at curtain call it was plain to see that some people felt that it succeeded immensely with intense standing ovations while others gave it a courteous and seated applause.
This dichotomy of experience by those in attendance reflects the main issue of the play: the dichotomy of human nature.
But before I get into discussing this dichotomy I must discuss the absurdist plot:
A soldier is trapped in a hole and can’t get out. A Madman tends to him and thinks of him as a plant that can talk. And they talk, quite a bit. Frequently the poetic dialogue is liberally peppered with rhyming couplets. At one point a Charity Worker stops by to check on the Madman but is unaware of the “human plant” because the Madman covers him up. At another point two soldiers Wice and Warz show up and see the planted soldier and a long debate ensues regarding freeing the soldier or not. A stranger shows up. Every now and then the action stops for two musicians to climb and sit up on a high platform, strum a guitar, at times sing, and then come down from the platform. Throughout it all there’s some lengthy monologues about the condition of humankind, and a discussion and explanation of the Greek myth of Spartoi. The play ends with an unexpected twist after 2 hours.
Stylistically and thematically this is Theatre of the Absurd seasoned with elements of Existentialist Theatre. Real world logic can’t be applied to these plays. When done right Theatre of the Absurd/Existentialist Theatre is absolutely thrilling because by shunning conventional plot devices and realism, it can speak volumes about the human condition. Frequently Absurdist/Existentiatlist theatre is funny, because it’s so strange, but there is usually a very serious message or revelation about humankind behind all the bizarreness. Even when these plays are serious, the surreal elements still connect to an audience on a deep level. And this is where “Smile, Smile Again” succeeds and fails, and why the audience had such a divergent reaction on opening night.
This is why it succeeds:
The acting is tremendous. Mitchell Parrack as the Madman is truly Mad. It’s a flawless performance. He speaks in paradoxical language: he argues with himself, and frequently proves to himself two opposing points of view and thoughts. He is oddly charming, even though he’s frightening. He’s highly intelligent but oblivious to the world. He lives in a delusional state and Parrack makes the audience understand the insanity of his character.
Darren McElroy as the soldier who is thought of as a plant gives a bravura performance. Since he can’t move, and has limited use of his hands and arms, he must convey every nuance of his character through the use of his voice and facial expressions. He is required to show a wide range of emotions, and he hits every emotional state effectively.
Marti Etheridge as the Charity Worker plays her character as someone who is also teetering at the edge of insanity, and she too gives a pitch perfect performance. Marcus Stimac as Wice and Gloria Benavides as Warz portray their soldier characters as a mix of both an Abott and Costello “Who’s on First” skit crossed with Monty Python and nail it. Kevin Grammer appears as the Stranger for basically no reason, and his befuddled look was appropriate.
Production wise, the set looks great because it is so raw. It is multi-leveled and gives a feeling of it being a much larger stage since there is much use of height. The detailed construction gives a feeling of a trench post World War I. The props are well done as are the costumes because they capture the feeling of the era. The use of sound is limited but it enhances the mood.
Justin Locklear understood the needs of an audience in his staging. Though one character remains static the entire time, everyone else moves and seems to swirl about him to prevent any visual tedium. As a playwright he obviously has a gift for manipulating the English language. This is a dialogue heavy play. And much of the dialogue is poetic, and the use of rhyme is constant. The vast amount of wordplay is quite clever and funny at times.
The concept of man stuck in the mud unable to move and completely dependent on another man to “water him” and “feed him” is especially incendiary seeing that it is a black man planted and the white man is doing the care taking. The Soldier begs to be released but the Madman won’t do it. The Madman acknowledges that the Soldier isn’t quite like any of his other plants, but won’t accept his full humanity. This visual metaphor speaks volumes and it isn’t lost on the audience. Because this play is about war and its aftermath, the scene between Wice and Warz demonstrates the twisted logic people will make up to explain and validate why people who would normally be against killing find murdering others in battle acceptable. All the characters explore through their lines the duality of human nature: good vs. evil, sanity vs. insanity, hope vs. despair, etc. All of these are powerful statements, and it is clear to see how this script affected people in the audience and thus applauded the play at the end with so much enthusiasm.
This is why it fails:
It is derivative.
These themes and ideas have been better explored in other absurdist/existentialist plays. “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett has the main character Winnie buried up to her waist in act one and up to her neck in act two. This visual metaphor was revolutionary when the play premiered in 1961 and the play is considered one of the great plays of the 20th century. Granted, in “Happy Days” the oppression of women in society was the central theme. But this concept of burying someone has been done. Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” from 1960 is an exploration of the rise of nationalism and war in which one character finds himself in a world gone insane. The Soldiers’ alienation in “Smile, Smile Again” comes across as a riff on the main character Bérenger from “Rhinoceros” who has to deal with the fact that he is the only man left in a world where all other humans have been turned into Rhinoceroses. There is also elements of 1961’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard, especially in the first dialogue scene between the Soldier and the Madman. “Waiting for Godot” from 1953, also by Beckett, and “The Lesson” by Ionesco from 1951 are also referenced.
Intentional or not, these themes have been explored much more effectively in the scripts mentioned above. Locklear’s play feels as if it is a mash-up of all of these other scripts, and for me, it doesn’t work. I have no objection with authors borrowing elements from other plays; after all, Shakespeare did it all the time. But if one must borrow, then one must improve upon the original. Here he’s just switching Winnie for the Soldier, imbuing him with some of the qualities of Bérenger, adding some Stoppard circular logic, etc. By simply adding couplets and vast wordplay, Lockelear’s script doesn’t do enough to elevate these concepts. It actually diminishes them. And because the wordplay is so intricate, most of the characters voices aren’t differentiated. Even in Classical theatre which was full of poetry and rhymes, each character managed to sound distinct. This play relies too much on the actors to add characterization to the dialogue that is rather interchangeable between the characters.
Another problem is that the play is too long. It needs serious editing. The same concepts are hashed and then rehashed. I found myself thinking “I got it! Can we move on?” But no, the use of wordplay is overused so that it comes across as if the playwright is trying to demonstrate his cleverness versus making a salient point. Because of the stylized dialogue, I never connected with the characters I found myself not caring what happened to them, and that is why boredom set in.
I’m not sure what the music added to this play, except for minutes. While it was nice to hear a guitar strumming in the background underscoring some of the Soldier’s monologues, the audience had to wait as the two Musicians walked onto the stage, climbed a high platform to then strum and or sing for a minute or two. Then upon ending the song the audience got to see them climb down and exit the stage. Why Locklear didn’t let them just remain on stage up in their perch the entire time escapes me. Everything else in the play was suffused with obvious meaning, so to see all action stop seemed unnecessary. It didn’t help that the diction of the singers wasn’t clear even though I was only about 15 feet away from them. I honestly wasn’t sure if they were singing in English or not. If this was all intentional, it wasn’t clear.
If this review sounds like I’m bashing the production. I am. But this is my subjective point of view. And the curious thing is that the play also does explore how people can perceive an event and take away opposing viewpoints from what they’ve witnessed. Nonetheless, to me, it seemed overwrought. It wasn’t the fault of the performers, it was the script. This said, I must give the following caveat:
If you like plays with clever wordplay, and “Smile, Smile Again” is very clever at times, and are unfamiliar with Absurdist/Existentialist theatre, this is a very well-produced and acted play that you will either enthusiastically adore, or feel “meh” about it. This said, it is definitely unlike any other theatre you will see in the Metroplex.
Ochre House Theater
828 Exposition Avenue
Dallas, Texas 75226,
Now through May 20, 2017
Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:15 PM. Tickets $17. For information and tickets visit www.Ochrehousetheatre.org or call 214-826-6273.