As all good pseudo-intellectuals do, I have often wondered how exactly Columbia's Core Curriculum will affect my general being. When it comes down to my last moments, will it really matter that I read Homer and Plato? Micah Schraft, author of The Propaganda Plays, has apparently asked himself the same question.
Chapter One, titled "The Allegory of the Cave," takes place at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Sheila (Sheri Graubert), a chipper visiting student from London, would like a paper extension from her teacher, Mr. Cogdon (Adrian LaTourelle). She claims she does not understand Plato's Republic; her parents are getting a divorce; and she is having feminine problems. As the two engage in dialogue, Sheila becomes more and more impassioned about the text. She rips off her shoes and socks, and her barefootedness leads her to bear her most fundamental beliefs. She flits about, standing on Mr. Cogdon's desk and strewing papers around the stage to recreate Plato's cave. In the end, Sheila forces Mr. Cogdon to use the Republic, which she read for a class called "Law and Morality," to admit to himself that he is sexually attracted to her. Mr. Cogdon gives Sheila an extension, and she offers him a red apple of garden temptation.
Chapter Two, titled "Atom and Devorah," takes place in a northeastern suburb. Atom (David Hornsby) is explaining his college thesis to his new stepmother, Devorah (Tatyana Yassukovich). He bandies about philosophical terms, speaking of "the word" of the Bible and Derida. Devorah munches on an apple all the while, and the two make conspicuous slips-of-the-tongue indicating their sexual attraction. Devorah convinces Atom to preach to her about mothers and sons, and in speaking of Mother's Day as a Nazi institution, he realizes how much never knowing his mother affected him. Devorah re-lives the circumstances that led to her giving up her child for adoption. Chapter Two ends with Atom curled up in Devorah's exposed breast, the characters having resolved an Oedipus complex of sorts.
Chapter Three, titled "Natural Selection," takes place ostensibly at Columbia University. An older Sheila (Tatyana Yassukovich) interviews an older Atom (Adrian LaTourelle) about his new book, The Sequel. The Sequel considers questions of biotechnology and how it will accelerate natural selection. Sheila is clearly attracted to Atom, who also went to Exeter, while Atom is clearly molesting his intern Will (David Hornsby). When Atom and Will leave the stage, would-be intern Alice (Sheri Graubert) babbles about being an aerobics instructor and falling for the wrong men. At the climax of the chapter, Alice performs a scene from Hedda Gabler while Atom simultaneously shouts his theories. Sheila admits that she came from England for the interview because she had a sexual experience with Atom at Exeter, and Alice ends up fornicating with Will on the desk. The core of the ever-present apple is placed in a Ziploc bag with tweezers.
Schraft manages to drive home his theme effectively. In each chapter, he shows that understanding or developing a stance on a particular intellectual issue often means eschewing the true self. The texts of Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilizations are only useful insofar as they allow us to be open about our visceral, even carnal, desires. Columbia says we will "develop a self," but Schraft seems to say that this self is not made up of fundamental beliefs about justice; it is knowing that what we really want is not necessarily moral or good. In fact, at each turn it is the person who is ignorant of intellectual concepts who understands: Sheila, a student who is still learning; Devorah, the uneducated woman from Georgia; and Alice, a ditzy aerobics instructor.
The Propaganda Plays is not as strong dramatically as it is thematically. At times, Schraft seems merely to replicate a session of Lit Hum. All of the actors handle the script beautifully, with direction from Trip Cullman, moving easily between its naturalistic and surreal pieces. Schraft pushes the limits of drama, an art form that usually relies on "showing" its theme rather than telling it, by making a Socratic debate the main action of his play. However, innovation and quality performance don't change the fact that The Propaganda Plays is simply on the dry side.
Set designer Sandra Goldmark handles the play with the utmost subtlety. The walls of Dixon Place are covered in papier-mâché to resemble a cave, and the whole stage smacks of cold, sterile blue. Matthew Richards' lighting whips from cheery, Exeter sun to dark, eerie Platonic cave, and from grey day in the suburbs to spotlighted home pulpit.
The Propaganda Plays is the kind of play that should almost be viewed more than once to digest its full symbolism. Schraft weaves together so many ideas and texts that the audience leaves the theater swimming in a pool of intellectual uncertainty. Dry as it may be live, its aftertaste is so rich, it's nauseating.
The Propaganda Plays opened Sept. 9 at Dixon Place (309 E. 26th Street) and runs through Sept. 23. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door, $8 for students/seniors/Dixon Place members. Call 532-1546 for tickets.