Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: An Ambitious Look at Gun Violence

By Ed Malin

On my block, in Brooklyn, there is a car with the bumper sticker "Gun Control Means Hitting Your Target". The vehicle has Florida plates.  With school shootings and other massacres so often in the news, I have wondered what kind of person would persist in such bumper sticker philosophy, and what I would say to them if we ever met.
Shooter is a play by Sam Graber, directed by Katrin Hilbe.  This non-linear production has been developed by the WorkShop Theater. Its current home at Theater Lab is a stage (designed by Sarah Edkins) decked out in extreme whiteness, with some surfaces covered in silver. Timely as the topic of gun violence may be, I was looking forward to seeing a play which might take on the sometimes complex motivations of a shooter as well as the devastating impact on the community.  It's not an easy play to write. "Shooter" features a disgruntled, white, male, American-born gunman (so we are not bogged down in any other ethnic stereotypes).  Otherwise, I got a little overwhelmed by the details of the story as it was presented near the beginning of the run.  The play is replete with very bright lighting effects (designed by Cheyenne Sykes) and sinister sound effects (designed by Andy Evan Cohen), which are part of an artistic vision that is apparently trying to show us all the pervasive threats in our world.  We may be looking inside Jim's head (he's the one they, and he himself, call "Shooter"), as given to us in a ricochet-type chronology. Here's what I was able to piece together:
As the play opens, a shooting range instructor named Troy (Michael Gnat) tells us a little bit of what we are about to witness.  Troy has a serious moustache and through his quite wonderful performance seems to represent the antiquated nature of certain beliefs about guns. Then, we find out that Jim (Ean Sheehy) is in police custody, that there has been a school shooting, and that his old friend and lawyer, Ben-David (David Perez-Ribada) has rushed in to help.  Jim's other old friend, Alan (CK Allen) also appears on the scene.  In the rush of dialogue, including admonitions to Jim (don't talk to anyone) and to Alan (I told you not to come), plus interludes with seemingly contradictory calls to 9-1-1 and a chorus of offstage actors vocalizing gunshot sounds, it's easy to miss one or two fleeting references to someone named Gavin.  We do meet Gavin (Nicholas-Tyler Corbin), unexpectedly, at the 2/3 point in the play, or just before the act break that would have greatly helped this production, had it been included.  Who is the dark, laconic, teenaged Gavin? The namesake of the play! But let's try to fill in what the production leads us to believe it is about it until we meet its crucial character.
photo by Carol Rosegg
No one likes Jim, including Jim himself. While the friends of his youth have landed respectable careers and have moved to the ostentatious side of the lake, Jim has suffered the indignity of having his wife and daughter walk out on him. Whatever Jim did for work, he isn't doing it anymore.  At some point, Jim shows up at a fancy party for his ex-wife, to which he was not invited, and is ejected after his former buddies remove the gun Jim brought along. Another time, when Jim in contemporary survival camouflage (costumes designed by Cathy Small) accosts Ben-David in a parking lot, he justifiably receives this diss: "I'm telling everybody from here on out, all my colleagues, the entire legal system: THIS GUY NEVER GETS HELP."  CK Allen and David Perez-Ribada as Jim's upwardly-mobile friends deliver very believable performances which help move the play along. Jim may not have a logical reason for shooting lessons, but he does tell it to us in great detail.  Jim knows what it used to mean, in his father's day, to be a man.  Jim wants to be a man, though as we see him in action with Troy, Jim is a terrible shooter. It looks like another sad, ill-advised tale of an ineffectual white dude. And then along came Gavin.
The handful of scenes with Gavin change everything. Suddenly, and going against everything else we have seen in the play, we are asked to believe that Jim is a hero.  Jim, and other licensed gun holders like him, could they be what's preventing bad shooters from making things even worse? I hope this play gives you the chance to examine this issue in greater detail.
Jim's heroic nature (and longing for traditional manhood in general) certainly surprised me. Any time Jim began a monologue, it struck me as rather inarticulate.  One time, he is explaining to Gavin how a modern man needs to be EXTRA-LARGE.  The only thing more awkward than this statement was Gavin's response, apropos of nothing, that he was planning to shoot up a school. Are we to take Jim's insecure musings as the inspiration for Gavin's bloodlust?  Does Jim rescue the school children (including his own daughter) from Gavin's misguided interpretation of Jim's interpretation of his father's manliness? On the other hand, who else in the fictional world of this play is going to help? You can't outrun a bullet, of course, unless you believe the entertainment industry.  Troy teaches marksmanship, and otherwise keeps his distance from consequences. Nice, he muses, is a city in France.  He even seems (wisely or otherwise) to fear that if he knows about any planned shooting, he would be tangentially responsible. Isn't he, though? Why would the world need more pistol-packing vigilantes as opposed to fewer shooting ranges? In this play, a successful urologist who doubts himself tells us that men confess their insecurities to him on the examining table. While the set does sport some fine mirrors, we could all go home and look in our own. That ought to be a good place to start.