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20/3/2004: The Nits in Paradiso

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Theatre review: Purple Heart

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Theatre review: Purple Heart
Friday, 25 July 2003 Symeon Charalabides (

"(...) You do know Laurie Metcalf, don't you?"

Well, I do now.

But to answer the question properly, no, I didn't know her before I watched Purple Heart. I had never watched any other play by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Neither did I know anything about Bruce Norris, and especially about his current fall from trendmanship with the general Chicago theatre-appreciation-related-press. I just went in, watched the play without having read any local reviews about it, and picked up my programme on leaving (and have yet to unfold it). I've even deleted the two Chicago reviews I read about the play a month ago, so they wouldn't affect my opinion (though I realise now they might have served to teach me a few relevant words/expressions so I wouldn't appear a totally green theatre critic, which is what I am). Thus the stage is set.

Purple Heart is a good play. Above average. It was certainly worth both my time and my money and I don't regret having watched it for an instant (you can tell there's a "but" coming, can't you?). It is entertaining. It is harsh. It is thought-provoking. And, God, is it righteous! So let's elaborate.

[+] On the "entertaining" count:
Well, there was the element of watching the play in Galway, during the Arts Festival, amid politically correct pensioners feasting on the social value of being (seen) in a theater and merely anticipating a quick triple bow and the subsequent raiding of some pub, the ones that didn't chatter all the way through it, that is. But there's no need to be tight about it, right?
The play is very well-written (brownies to Mr. Norris gallore), fast, with great, often overlapping, dialogues and packs enough wit to stand proud in the land that bore Oscar Wilde. All four of the characters do their parts justice, but I have to give Laurie Metcalf a special mention here: she is marvellous. When she's on stage, she takes over effortlessly, she extrudes confidence all around (what a corny comment) and maybe I should reserve the rest of this sentence for the "righteous" part.
I should also mention that Thor (played by one... Lucas Ellman) gave me repeated flashbacks of Brian (played by Anthony-Michael Hall) from The Breakfast Club, but I think I'll save myself some face and not elaborate on this further.
The set, coupled with accurately placed remarks gives all the information needed about the place and time the story is supposed to be taking place. I was particularly attracted to the stage, but only in a masochist sort of way. The furniture, textures, clothing, and equipment are much more 70s than the petty retakes of the early 00s ever managed to be, so much so as to make me wonder how I survived having been born at the time. Hum. I think it's time for my Prozak.

[+] On the "harsh" count:
I can't say much here, for not wanting to reveal the plot. In general, there are several scenes that can be considered "objectionable", ranging from violent to disgusting. Shocking is the word, of course, and it is used to good effect in the play. I suppose the French would be more at home with the issue, but I've never seen a French play, and I didn't mind the scenes that stood out.
Having said that, I can definitely see where exactly Morris's reputation comes from. He puts effort into stunning the audience with visual elements. The language he uses is plenty vile and, the play lacking the exotic element, it is destined to be remembered as a glimpse into somebody's tough unreality. Is this a bad thing? I can only say "not necessarily" since it didn't lower my opinion of the play, but I can also imagine it appealing to a wider audience had some buffering been applied. Not that I condone the sell-out of one's artistic prowess, so save your hate mail for when I flame the next poor undeserving soul.

[+] On the "thought-provoking" count:
Again, not much can be said - see above. The play is about opening a can of worms. Or, more accurately, having your can of worms opened for you. A can of three snakes, to be completly precise. Or, in fact...
It is a play about love, about pain and anguish, about the forces of nature and the trends of society that corner us, and about the prisoner inside us who dreams of escaping and ravishing juicy daughters and burning whole cities to the ground and going up in smoke, his wicked laughter still echoing, while his whole continent is nuked, only to look the other way and pretend not to hear the sound of his cell door opening. Which reminds me I have to have a talk with my mother.

[+] On the "righteous" count:
Twenty-four line breaks later, I've finally come where I wanted to be. And I'm not even sure what I'm supposed to write here...
It's not really possible to put my finger on (or, maybe I just lack the vocabulary and/or patience and/or intelligence), but Purple Heart is a loud play. It's a story with a reason. It makes a point. A different one per viewer, as the case may be, but the point is made nonetheless. And it is honest. Does all that summed up spell "righteous"? I hope so.
This could be one more element in the explanation why Bruce Norris has fallen from grace lately, and the elaborate scrutiny above applies here as well: some people just don't like to be shouted at. Then again, some people like the Hammond organ - nothing you can do but try not to throttle them around witnesses.

And so we come to the big "but". I can speak it right out, or I can bring it crawling in. Choice. Why does it have to resemble a sitcom so much? There, I asked it. Why do the characters have to, just have to, make lukewarm, quasi-interesting, half-hearted, uncalled-for cracks so much of the time? It's not so much that they do, it's mostly (I felt) there was a prevailing necessity to do so, which I find misplaced, misapplied and, darling, so passé. Why, Mr. Norris?

Enhancing the "sitcom" impression was a good dose of overacting from most of the characters in the play. Maybe this is what theatre is and I just have to accept it, of course, since I see overacting in most plays I watch. Maybe I'm just too paranoid about having my intelligence insulted (the British Amazon comes to mind) that I can only enjoy a candle-lit show of a single off-white feather moving sublimely to the breath of the audience.

Since I've hit the subjective streak so hard (and let it be known throughout the land that these last paragraphs are pure personal commentary, as opposed to the four points above them, which I tried to give a semblance of sense), I may as well add that I find it strange at this day and age to watch conventional theatre. No strangely-shaped devices of unfathomable use, no backgrounds of symbolic shapes with puppies helplessly trapped in styrofoam cut-outs, no balls of sparkling plasma burning toxic holes in the viewers' retinas, that sort of thing. Purple Heart is utterly conventional (shocking scenes notwithstanding) although its "alternative" potential is clear, and for that it fails to score more points with me. I just don't want to watch people doing people things in a theatre. On the other hand, of course, I prefer poetry that actually rhymes, so it could be that I am not conveying Prometheus's legacy for all manking to behold here, merely saying like, what I dig, dude. Stranger things have happened (winos claim).

So there. Watching Purple Heart made for a nice evening of entertainment, introspection and typing (in that order). Mojo Mickybo remains my favourite play of all time (people who caught the 1999 run in Ireland know why), and I will not be the first person to queue for tickets the next time Steppenwolf are in town. But I will be more eager than I was the first time (I was neutral, Jo recommended it), especially if Laurie Metcalf is a participant and even more so if it's another Bruce Norris number. And, for the performance, I'll get rid of that thing on my shoulder that yaps at me incessantly, and then I'll go out into the big world and I'll never hate anybody again.

Yes, I think that's it.

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Purple Heart (26/7/03,
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