Flesh is More – Screen and Stage 2011
By: Isa Goldberg
If it all goes as expected, physical mutilation will earn lots of Oscar Award-winning kudos this year. From “Black Swan” to “True Grit” and “127 Hours”, bloody atrocities – the shock of cutting up and amputating – are having a heyday. It seems the only way out of this physically handicapping genre is social networking, a far less threatening form of human communication. Perhaps that explains its popularity. At this rate, it’s easier to prefer Facebook.
Off Broadway shows, too, are demonstrating this appetite for gore. There is “The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller”, a fictional account of the disappearance of the cultural anthropologist Michael Rockefeller (Nelson Rockefeller’s son) in the Asmat region of Papua New Guinea in 1961. While reports suggest that the young Rockefeller probably drowned off shore in a canoeing accident, Jeff Cohen’s new play, based on the short story by Christopher Stokes, depicts the cannibalization of this cheerful, optimistic youth by the tribe he studied and which he embraced. Clearly, there is a sense of brotherhood that emerges as Rockefeller (played by Aaron Strand) tries to protect the Asmats from “cultural bankruptcy”. Here physical acts – anal fornication along with stabbing, cutting, and devouring of body parts – are suggested through the actors’ choreographed moves rather than through realistic enactment.
More graphic is “Gruesome Playground Injuries” by Rajiv Joseph. While the gory deeds – splitting one’s face open and getting one’s eye blown out – all happen off stage, the relentless piling up of physical injuries leads us to an acute sense of human tragedy. Both Pablo Schreiber (Doug) and Jennifer Carpenter (Kayleen) deliver sensitive portrayals of characters whose wounds, emotional as well as physical, keep them from a fulfilling relationship no matter how much they may love each other.
In “The Whipping Man”, on the other hand, an onstage amputation early in the first act has the effect of a real life event taking place in real time. Matthew Lopez’s new play is set during the last days of the Civil War in the home of Jewish slave owners. When the master’s son Caleb (Jay Wilkison) returns with a gun wound and a gangrenous leg, his former slave Simon (Emmy Award-winning Andre Braugher) saws of the infected limb, saving his life.
The play’s climax arrives at a Passover Seder, presided over by Simon with Caleb and John, another of the family’s former slaves, participating. While the DeLeon’s may have enlisted “The Whipping Man” to force their slaves into submission, they also raised them as Jews, and taught them in the spirit of Passover that no man should be enslaved by another. Simon’s prayers turn into an impassioned rendition of the spiritual “Go Down Moses”, a moment which evokes enormous audience empathy. (The production has been extended three times due to popular demand.)
But the feeling it caused me was to the contrary, one of repulsion. While Simon expresses his faith and belief in deliverance, it is he who is betrayed as his master has just sold both Simon’s wife and his daughter into further bondage. That Caleb, John and the audience all realize this, made me feel like this devout and faithful man was the object of a terrible mockery.
Regardless of the audience response, the graphic display of physical gore is only a foreshadowing of the emotional pain “The Whipping Man” delivers.
“Who Ate Michael Rockefeller”
is at the West End Theater, 263 West 86th Street, (212) 868-4444; smarttix.com.
“The Whipping Man”
is at City Center, Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org.