Impressions of The Twelfth Labor: A Non-review
The Twelfth Labor
By Leegrid Stevens
Produced by Tutto Theatre Company
5600 Sunshine Dr.
I walked through the parking lot of the MacCallum Fine Arts Academy in central Austin in the energy-draining August heat that curls the very leaves of the trees. Tutto Theatre Company’s US premiere of Leegrid Stevens’ The Twelfth Labor takes place in the Lab Theatre, a black box space across the parking lot from the still-new Mac Fine Arts Center. Black boxes are where anything can and does happen. On this night the first surprising impression in this black box was the sight of the exploding set by Ia Enstera. The house left end of the set and the upper wall of the upstage center house wall seem to explode upward and away like a slow-motion film of a tornado lifting effortlessly the logs of a log cabin one log at a time. This frozen explosion is the perfect metaphor for the family in the house below. That family not only exploded in 1949, the time of the play, but they are still exploding, as does every family today.
I have to state immediately that I am highly involved with this play as a producer and board member of Tutto Theatre Company. I can make no claim of objectivity for these impressions, and I wouldn’t want to. But the play strikes me deeply (who would produce a play that didn’t?), and I want to tell the world about it. That’s why I’m calling this a non-review.
The base facts of the play are that it’s about a hardscrabble Idaho farm family in 1949. Earlier, their patriarch, Forrest Prater (Skip Johnson), had left the family temporarily for a construction job on Wake Island in 1941, where, although a civilian, he was captured by the invading Japanese. He spent all of World War II in a prison camp, and by 1949 had still not returned home.
Forrest’s developmentally delayed daughter Cleo (Erin Treadway), however, has persistent bright, prophetic dreams of Forrest’s safe homecoming. On the other hand, Cleo’s mother Esther (Rebecca Robinson) has lost all hope for the future in the misery of her endless labor operating the farm and keeping the family together. Hopelessness in the declining fortunes of the farm is the source of all the conflicts of the play, and all the characters take action (or simply writhe in place) out of their sense of desperation and widely varying visions of their personal futures.
All the character interactions show their conflicts, but at the same time the characters hold each other with great tenderness. For example, the acidly gossipy Hens (portrayed by Content Love Knowles, Chris Humphrey and Helen Allen) take Esther under their wings to get her ready for the awards ceremony. Throughout the play, the characters play and often give each other food, some of it rotten, but still. One audience member remarked that the play was a story having delicacy, and, yes, I can see it, right through the fight scenes.
At least part of this underlying tenderness is due to Director Gary Jaffe’s sensitive direction. His blocking of the stage action, in particular, is full of Baroque swirlings and asymmetric movements; these qualities give surprise to many entrances and flashes of costume color against the earth tones of Enstera’s set. This movement style also heightens the Hens’ transit of the play, with their bizarre and crisp speeches, dialogues and evil cluckings.
The play is a narrative drama, but one of non-linear storytelling, so a la mode. Acts II and III depict fantasy landscapes and different times, all in Cleo’s dreamland and seen through Cleo’s eyes and spoken with Cleo’s voice. And her language is incredibly rich, with Spoonerisms, neologisms and imaginatively distorted songs and dialogues from period movies beloved by Cleo. This is a strange turn for any play, but the audiences embrace it from the first instant. The cast delights in their lines; they take them (Cleo-speak) as a rhetorical challenge, to give as clearly as possible the dialogues with all their subtle and double and triple meanings available for the audience’s enjoyment. The audience need not sit there with puzzled looks, wondering—what’s okasure? What’s snovel? What’s coreshits?
Wray Crawford and Trey Deason are standouts in this triumph of rhetoric and exposition, accepting the added challenge of rapid-fire patter and punning in their Abbott and Costello routine. I would recommend this play to all my friends on the strength of acts II and III alone. They are that good.
Another variation from modernist drama and literature (I’m sure you’ve stopped thinking Tennessee Williams, Steinbeck and Faulkner long ago) is The Twelfth Labor’s act of breaking the centrality of story. Where modernist stories have a main plot with subplots, The Twelfth Labor maintains a balance of stories, and gives equal weight to all the plot lines. All the stories are strong and the play keeps its central secrets until late. So one wonders what is truly the central story here. More than half the play is seen from Cleo’s point of view, but when Esther steps on stage one is convinced that the play is really all about Esther. Likewise, when Forrest takes us through the prison camp, and, in his long monologue explains why he left about a quarter of himself there, we feel as though everything was a lead-up to his character-revealing experience. And so it goes. When Esther and Donna (Megan Minto) finally confront each other about their lives, we believe there can be no higher plateau in the play. Rather than feeling confused by all this storytelling at the end of the play, surprisingly one feels a vast, vast sense of resolution. This is only for the audience, however, because the characters’ outcomes are varied—they are resolved or unresolved, succeeded or failed, fulfilled or left empty, just as in life. But the feeling the audience takes away seems to carry with it the inspiration to struggle onward, that all is well.
I have a final odd impression about the play and its writing. The soldier Dee is the best nonembodied character I have witnessed in years, perhaps since Godot (probable overstatement). Donna reads his poetic love letters (so does Cleo) and describes his desire for marriage, desire for a son, desire for the best of everything and motivation for education. Esther describes his uniform buttons, deception, dark side and malicious intent toward Donna. Between these extremes of dark and light we can easily see the outline form of a human character. I felt I knew him. All that remained was for an actor wearing his Army uniform to step on stage. I enjoyed this small exercise of restraint, however, in not creating an enacted role for Dee. This restraint gave a tiny space for the imaginative play of the audience, and is also the best literal expression of the absentee husband. Such thoughtfulness is one mark of brilliant playwriting.
Director Jaffe and Annamarie Kasper as Herk together have crafted a gem of a role in the character of Herk, mud-covered yet shining. At the end of the play, yet again, we think that it has all come down to the story of Herk and his relation to The Family Secret. Herk has the actual end of the play, without a spoken line attached to it. He turns away from the dining table and looks past and upward from the audience, seemingly looking toward the future. The fear in his eyes, so well gathered in his short life, is gone. To a certainty, what we see there now is hope.