Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Review of The Riot Group's production of Adriano Shaplin's "Hearts of Man," published by EDGE Philadelphia

In his preface to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov wrote that there are three subjects that modern society won’t tolerate in art: a work that depicted interracial relationships, a work that glorified the life of a degenerate, or a work that non-judgmentally (or favorably) dealt with the (sexual) relationship between a grown adult and a young person.

While changing social norms reflected in books, plays, and movies have shown the acceptance of the first two, I think it’s fair to say that the last topic still remains a taboo in art.

Or, as Adriano Shaplin’s Hearts of Man’s criminal defense attorney states even her reluctance, "I don’t do politics, and luring’s a politicized crime."

In Hearts, a police sting arrests the mid-thirty-something Rabideux (Drew Friedman) attempting to meet a 14-year old boy after dozens of suggestive online chats that they’ve recorded (and conducted). The initially self-serving DA (Paul Schnabel), goaded on by the lead detective (Dennis McSorley), the media, and the community activist leader of "Jill’s Group" (Tara V. Perry), indicts him on every possible charge. Rabideux’s sister Kris (Kristen Sieh) interns at a law firm, and convinces crusading defense attorney Vicki DeFazio (Stephanie Viola) to take the case.

Most people who go to the theatre wouldn’t think twice about condemning even a potential child offender, even one who’s engaged in online luring only (reinforcing Nabokov’s point). Yet Shaplin’s play takes the opposite approach entirely-indicting everyone but the perpetrator for their self-righteousness, their gun-jumping approach to justice, and their leering voyeurism in the popularity of programs like "To Catch a Predator."

But Shaplin’s also very careful to draw his character and his crimes in a way that not only implies potential innocence of a man victimized by an overzealous police sting, but to craft the language of the internet chat’s in a highly ambiguous not-clearly-sexual manner. And his play argues (much like an essay argues, but not always like a play argues), that anti-child endangerment programs and Megan’s law often ensnare lesser types than the hard-core pedophiles, and in those cases do more harm than good.

For such odious subject matter, this is a very compelling new work, especially in this world premiere by New Jersey’s The Riot Group (as part of the 2007 Philadelphia Fringe Festival).

Shaplin’s obvious gift lies in his use of language to shape characters, which ranges from the coarse, streetwise vernacular of the detective, to the Biblical alliterations of his Chris Hansen tele-clone Rex (Friedman, double-cast), to the intense, near poetry spoken by DeFazio. Phrases like "you log one half a dirty phone call and call it police work" mingle with "I knew these laws were wrong, but I hid and did nothing...and now I must defend those human remains whose corpses even seagulls would avoid" to create an effect that’s half Law & Order, and half C.S. Lewis style religious prose drama.

For the most part, the actors underscore the text with sincere, nuanced performances. Friedman is just pathetic (and guilty) enough as the alleged predator, while McSorley presents a cantankerous, too-funny-to-dislike detective. Only Schnabel fails to present a convincing role in his DA, either in his reticence to push the case, or his half-hearted attempts to get the media to back off when he barks, "the law is not your sentiment."

However, the women outclass all of the men in this production, though not enough to provide a noticeable imbalance, as Perry’s roles all line up morally opposed to the parts played by Sieh and Viola. Perry shifts effortlessly through multiple, disparate roles, and Sieh’s concerned, yet doubting sister gives an insightful haggling of her emotions from denial through rationalization, while still making the audience feel her shudders when faced with a brother who may have tried to lure a teenager into his bed.

Yet it’s Viola who gives one the best performances of the entire fringe in her attorney’s mix of Christian zeal and legal righteousness. Her quick, nervous movements across the stage generate more tension that what’s on the page, and she makes her final sequence of scenes a heart-rending experience to watch as she crumbles under the weight of the "you’re fucked either way" statutes set up to condemn any defense of these offenders.

Regrettably, it’s this aspect that Shaplin didn’t focus upon more in his play-the frustration experienced by many (mostly drug offenders) slammed by a prosecutorial system in this country that indicts defendants with "attempted" and "conspiracy" charges on top of the actual acts themselves-all in an effort to railroad them into pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Instead, he veered off course to indict too many other sources-the media, the internet itself, the "Jill’s group" type community activists-all of which diffused the injustice initially brought about by the overzealous laws and their highly politicized enforcement.

The play ends with Rabideux, arriving back at his apartment, after pleading guilty (and receiving a long probation) to a lesser charge, only to find an activist has already posted a flier labeling him as a sex offender all over his neighborhood. Rabideux’s guilt remains indeterminate, and I’m inclined to pity him for the self-inflicted wound he’s put on his life, but not because he’s suffered an injustice.

This is partially the fault of the story, and partly the fault of the playwright. The plot never let Rabideux defend himself in a trial, and his early protests of "I didn’t do anything wrong" aren’t the same as innocence. However, Shaplin errs in trying to do too much (the whole media indictment became one monologue of a dead end), and as a result, only touches upon the source of the potential injustice he wants to point out, alerting us to a problem like a town crier vaguely saying, "there’s a fire...somewhere."

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