Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: Different But the Same, Just Like You and Me

By Ed Malin

The Tank, in association with Glass Bandits, is now presenting Charleses by Carl Holder at the Brick Theater.  Meghan Finn  directs.  Charleses is a play full of, well, men named Charles.  It has a striking, spacious set designed by Peiyi Wong, which serves as a humble cabinet-making workshop but also has a skeleton of a roof.  Similarly, the play is full of amazing silences and tableaux, just like real life with real men.
The elder Charles (Richard Toth) is discovered in his workshop, finishing a piece of furniture.  The rotary phone rings, presumably announcing the birth of his son.  (The play never shows us any women, instead allowing us to focus on the relationships of the XY chromosome people.)  Without missing a beat, Charles puts together a cradle.  When the lights come up again, he is rocking Charles 2 (Mike Shapiro), a grown actor who will go through an accelerated childhood before our eyes. Charles may be a self-made man of few words, but his smiles and gestures of victory make you want to smile, laugh and cry. Charles tries to teach Charles 2 how to say their name, with charmingly futile results.  A few minutes later, Charles 2 is learning to ride a bike. Next, a drum beat punctuates a scene where Charles and Charles 2 enter a deli, order sandwiches and wax metaphysical; it scans nicely and feels very ordered, the way our ancestors lived and thought of themselves. Soon, Charles 2 is learning to drive a car and gets a distant-feeling shaving lesson from Charles.  But is it Charles’s fault he doesn’t make small talk?  As they wipe off the shaving cream, Charles asks Charles 2, “What else would you like to talk about?”
Soon enough, the stork brings Charles and Charles 2 their very own Charles 3 (Fernando Gonzalez).  Charles 3 will also have to learn to say their name, ride a bike, try to pee against a tree and order a deli sandwich, but he is very much his own person. Charles 3 is sensitive and prone to question the existing order.  For example, Charles 3 does a school film on the history of logging and cabinetry work in his community.  Charles 3 sympathizes with those who, according to him, lived simply doing the only thing they knew how to do; Charles, in contrast, gets bored when Charles 3 has technical difficulties during the presentation.  Later, when Charles is not around, Charles 2 tells Charles 3 that their patriarch “grew up in a time when all men had to be bad. He even was made fun of for having a feminine job like cabinet making.”
photo by Josh Luxenberg
This play patiently and benevolently gives each generation its say.  We see the adolescent Charles 3 gay cruising on the internet. The elder Charles has a stroke but, no matter how long it takes him to articulate his thoughts, he is willful and dignified. Eventually, Charles 3 goes into medicine, at a time when people seem to have more difficulty connecting with each other. Charles 3 is seen somewhat listlessly telling a computer to read his email; 90% of the messages are marked “ignore”.  We also see a retrospective of each generation discovering the neighborhood sandwich shop (no menu, just order) and its specialties. Clearly, some things don’t change, and that’s OK, too.
Charleses is a well-written and exquisitely directed and performed play.  If you haven’t had a “show don’t tell experience” in a while, please go see it.  I’m sure you will be left with the pleasurable task of learning to like three nice but flawed people.  They are solid, and totally different from each other, and speak as often as not in facial expressions. Nevertheless, all of the family members, sandwich makers, the local barber, etc. are names Charles. Are YOU set in your ways?  Is being super-progressive a form of intolerance?  These producing organizations are always moving forwards, so it is a great joy to see them deliver this work.