Landscape of the body - Main characters (from left to right) Bert, Margie, Joane, and Donny sit at a diner as the boys plot to steal rich mens’ watches. Photo by Matt Toles
John Donne wrote the famous words “No man is an island,” and through the decades, many have taken solace in these words. But over 350 years later in John Guare’s 1977 play, put on by the UW School of Drama, everyone is an island searching for a way to cross the waters that separate them from the rest of humanity.
“Landscape of the Body” tracks Betty Yearn (an agile and sincere Amanda Hilson) throughout her interrogation for the alleged murder and decapitation of her 16-year-old son. The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks narrated by Betty’s dead sister Rosalie (a lithe and whimsical Yesenia Iglesias).
Death seems to follow Betty. Her best friend died from cancer, her sister in a bike accident, her father long since gone, her boss in a police shooting, and the father of her son conspicuously missing. To stave off the loneliness, she clings on to those around her, indulging in fantasy worlds where she can live lavishly and “get out” of her present life. Her sister, however, assures Betty and the audience (in separate scenes) that death is sure for everyone and that human life is meaningless in the face of its certain arrival.
Though “Landscape” is rife with awkward set changes, out of place musical interludes, and a few uncomfortable acting scenes, the actors adeptly carried the play’s multiple messages all the way through.
The question, however, remains: Which message should I walk away with? There are so many messages crammed into the two-and-a-half hour production that very few have time to fully develop.
The opening scene places viewers with Betty and the police chief Captain Marvin Holahan (an overstressed Pankaj K. Jha) on a ferry to Nantucket where he mourns the days when the Kennedys were American royalty, voicing the human longing for the unattainable “good life.”
Guare also points out the falsehoods of the American dream with his characterization of Betty’s boss Raulito (a hilarious and lecherous Darius Mousavi) who wears a gold lamé gown over his business suit. As a poor boy in Cuba, the magazines he read made him think all wealthy Americans dressed that way. Guare even touches on accepting that some questions will never be answered in the search to find oneself. At one point Betty declares, “My life is the triumph of all the things I don’t know.”
All of these are a few of the many themes briefly examined, but the one most explored in “Landscape” is a summation of all of the above. As we see again and again from Betty, anything desirable is unattainable, and all she really craves is to be allowed entrance to, and identify with, some fantasy world where she knows she is not alone.
Even the set design separates characters into their isolated worlds. During the interrogation scenes, Betty’s chair sits on a platform feet apart from the police chief’s desk perched atop another.
The complicated and numerous character story lines and ever-multiplying themes causes “Landscape” to drag in places, but the final scenes pick up the pace, wrapping up most of the loose ends.
“Landscape of the Body” runs through Nov. 18 at the Meany Studio Theatre.
The verdict: Though slow in places and often depressing, “Landscape of the Body” takes a deep look at what it means to be human in the modern world.
Reach reporter Samantha Leeds at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SamanthaJLeeds
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