There are certain artistic efforts where comprehension is a forlorn hope, a fact that in no way detracts from their distinct merits as a singular work. Volumes have been written about the meaning of Beckett’s “Godot”, and trust me more volumes still will be.
One can only wonder the hours that both scholars and the casual museum goers have expended standing before Dali’s Persistence of Memory, or Jackson Pollock’s Number 17 attempting to delve into their meaning. Perhaps, in the end, to quote Harold Pinter, master of the oblique, it all comes down to “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.”
“Backyard” by Mickey Birnbaum presents its audience with quite a “weasel”, one that is both extremely energetic, and heartily entertaining. Set in a “suburb of San Diego near the US-Mexican border”, fences and bars abound – the border fence, security bars on windows, gated backyards. A constant understatement rippling throughout the play is that fences not only keep one out, but in. To emphasize this point director Larry Biederman choreographs specific scenes involving a father and son divided by the demarcation of international boundaries into a three way tango between father, son and fence.
The other element, arguably the more dominant one, is that of the arena.
School friends Chuck (Ian Bamberg) and Ray (Adan Rocha) have transformed the titular “backyard” into an arena where, in the guise of WWF wrestling archetypal bouts, as old as those of Gilgamesh and Enkidu are re-fought. The grandiosely conceived combats are rehearsed with the aptly named Lilith (Esmer Kazvinova) a young neighborhood waif and practiced cutter lurking on the sidelines, and Carrie (Jacqueline Wright), Chuck’s single mother with the heart of golden barbed wire, injecting her suggestions for the storyline.
Birnbaum flings the metaphors and free verse with gleeful aplomb, employing a language thick with resonance beyond the prosaic confines of San Diego.
I have seen a review or two penned by other “theatrical critics”, this select brotherhood flirting between monastic order and leper colony, which I find myself a part of. These reviews, which I can’t say were favorable, seem to approach Birnbaum’s play as a “slice of life” tale, just a typical story of American youth in the modern urban landscape. Whether these reviews would make one run out to see this production I can’t really say, but one should definitely avoid the neighborhoods the reviewers live in.
Birnbaum’s world is concerned with more than teenage angst. He is dishing out a neo-urbanized epic. The characteristics are there: The work begins in medias res. (Just a fancy way of saying, at a “dramatic moment.”) The theme is stated, more or less at the beginning, in the outline of young Chuck’s wrestling plot. You’ve got your long and short speeches. And some of the dialogue fluctuates between the Homeric, “There is a river of loneliness most men drown in.” And the humorously Homeric: “A crying man is like a woman with chest hair.” Young Chuck certainly embodies the value of his “kingdom”. And there are fitting bynames for the characters. Yep, seems to qualify in my book.
But as Joseph Campbell would be sure to point out, the epic journey must be a contest for the soul of its hero. That battle is entered into when Carrie’s estranged husband, and Chuck’s absentee father, Ted (Hugo Armstrong), appears on the scene. We soon see that “family” is just another form of arena, as blood-spattered as any ancient Roman amphitheatre.
I will not say I understood what this play was trying to tell me, but I assure you it does have something to say, which puts it heads and shoulders above the vast herd of plays on the scene whose manifest hollowness is testified by the sound they emit when a good wind blows by them.
The Echo Company has been mounting the most interesting productions recently, and you can add “Backyard” to that list. The cast is solid across the boards, with Wright and Armstrong as the battling embittered parents adding a high luster to the shine already present.
Director Biederman pushes off the audience’s possible ponderings, which would only prove an obstruction to this production, by keeping the pacing firmly in place and thus making the evening all the more enjoyable. Because whatever else Birnbaum’s play may be, it is great fun. Very brutal, very sexual, and very bloody, but great fun all the same.
Figuring out what the hell it was all about over a latte macchiato and caffè crema at some little artsy “espresso-hookah-bistro” would only add to the fun.
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave
Atwater Village, CA 90039
Performances: May 31 – July 13
Fridays at 8 p.m.: June 13. 20, 27; July 11 (dark July 4)
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: June 14, 21, 28; July 12 (dark July 5)
Sundays at 7 p.m.: June 15, 22, 29; July 13 (dark July 6)
Fridays and Sundays: $25