Off Broadway Theater Review: LIDLESS (Page 73)

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by Thomas Antoinne on October 2, 2011

in Theater-New York


One approaches Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Lidless with high expectations.  The play has won the prestigious David C. Horn Yale Drama Prize as well as UT Austin’s Keene Prize where Cowhig received an MFA.  Blackburn finalist, commissions, fringe prizes, and residencies confirm Cowhig as a writer the American Theatre has anointed and embraced.  The Page 73 program re-affirms it, with Executive Producers Liz Jones and Asher Richelli calling her a “visionary, young playwright.”  All this celebration of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Lidless stakes a claim for what passes as a standard of high quality in the American Theatre.  As a responsible critic, I cannot co-sign this assessment.  The emperor may not be completely naked, but the P73 production of Lidless at Walkerspace in Soho offers only a hint of the press and promise we’ve been fed about Cowhig’s work.

Page 73’s production of Lidless by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig – directed by Tea Alagic – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneCowhig had a great idea:  write a play exploring the personal effects of the Pentagon-approved interrogation technique known as “Invasion of Space by a Female” – a euphemism, of course, for rape by a female military operative.  It was often used to intimidate and torture male Islamic prisoners at Guantanamo Prison.  Cowhig’s play follows one such operative, Alice, starting with her doing her job at Gitmo and following her as she suffers the consequences of her heinous actions 10 years later.

Page 73’s production of Lidless by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig – directed by Tea Alagic – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas Antoinne“Invasion of Space by a Female” is fertile ground for a great American play, if only Cowhig’s dramaturgical craft were stronger.  Cowhig delights in theatrical devices – relying heavily on language and repetition over character and story.  Cowhig asks her audience to process a great deal of language – poetry is her greatest strength as a writer.  Unfortunately, Cowhig tends to gild the lily, and the result is “too much of a muchness.”  I would often find myself lost in her words, never sure what I should be paying attention to.  I was also aware that I was hearing the words, but never encouraged to lean in and truly listen to the story.  My suspicions of dramaturgical craft-deficiency were confirmed when a series of contrived coincidences arrive towards the end as “secrets revealed” to move the story forward, but ultimately undermine the storytelling.

Page 73’s production of Lidless by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig – directed by Tea Alagic – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneCowhig’s script owes as much to cinema as it does to theatre.  Quick cuts and short scenes without significant dramatic incidents abound.  Scott Bradley’s set design easily solves these problems.  The stage is simple and spare, painted to let the action flow and mirror the world of the play, past and present.  Tea Alagic’s direction is regretfully heavy handed.  She never gives the audience a moment when we feel we are welcomed in, to engage with the world of the play emotionally.  Alagic falls into one of the common traps of directing a language-heavy play; she fetters it with too many other sensual design elements.  Excessive sound and lighting effects compete with Cowhig’s language.  We are left with an evening lacking in focus.

The actors in the P73 production also struggle with Cowhig’s  material.  Cowhig’s effusive language would be a challenge for the best of them, and I’m sorry to report that no one in the ensemble seems up to the task.  With Jack  Doulin credited as casting director, I wondered why an ensemble of New York actors by a leading Off-Broadway theatre was uniformly so weak.  If an audience is to be invited into a language-driven world, the ensemble should be working overtime to ground the work in human truth.  Instead, we get larger-than-life performances and volume for emotion.  But Cowhig seems less interested in character than words anyway.  I left the theatre still not clear why a decent woman would take a job as a professional rapist; at the same time I knew exactly why a supporting character needed three extra candles on her birthday cake.

One of the biggest problems with developing contemporary plays in the American theatre is that it takes three to five years for the more fortunate plays to progress from page to stage.  When Cowhig was writing the first draft of her play, a majority of Americans were more enthusiastic about the closing of Gitmo.  It was one of the promises of the Obama campaign.  Since then, Barack Obama has proven he’s no progressive.  In addition, the military industrial complex has made it clear that Gitmo is too valuable an asset, and the chances of its closing are fairly slim.  While we can all agree “Invasion of Space by a Female” is an atrocious practice, Gitmo issues are regretfully no longer in the forefront of the American cultural conversation.  While Lidless is not irrelevant, it no longer feels current.

Page 73’s production of Lidless by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig – directed by Tea Alagic – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneUndeniably, Cowhig has a poetic voice that shines from time to time in P73’s production of Lidless.  But she may end up a victim of the current trend in the American Theatre of anointing the next generation of playwrights before they’ve actually found their storytelling chops.  By giving premature accolades and high profile productions to young playwrights who have yet to find their way, we do more harm than good – to the playwright and the American Theatre.

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photos by Richard Termine

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