Strange Children in Dangerous Worlds at the Aurora and SF Playhouse

The world premiere of Mark Jackson’s Little Erik, a savage and free-wheeling adaption of Henrik Ibsen’s missing child play, Little Eyolf, is currently underway at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre. It’s the best play the Aurora has produced in some time. Ibsen was a master at giving his supposedly respectable audiences a taste of their own trash, and Jackson has the same nasty impulse here to skewer the bourgeoisie on the corpses of their children. How perfect that this play should open in one of the most self-regarding cities in America, if not the world.

Little Erik begins in extreme tension and classic form: Joie sits. Andi enters. Andi seems innocent, but guilty. Joie is a wild cat homing in for the kill. At first you have no idea how these women are related. From moment to moment they feel like sisters, or mother/nanny, mother/child, or opposing poles of a ménage a trois. It’s impossible to tell the nature of their relationship. All we know is that they can barely handle this chance encounter.

When we find out Joie and Andi are in fact sisters-in-law, it's a small-scale psychic shock that unbalances the typical geometry of the family drama. In a world of shimmering rectangles, where the placement of a chair has the feeling of law, these sisters by marriage seem to be overstepping their bounds. It’s as if they are slowly slipping outside the limits of representation. It's one of the many ways Jackson streamlines and focuses the overwrought melodrama of Ibsen's original.

Andi seems too much a sister and way too much of an aunt, while Joie is clearly too little a wife and mother. They hover on the edge of their roles, and actresses Marilee Talkington (Joie) and Mariah Castle (Andi) slip between the obvious and opaque with haunting results. We know these people. They have the scent of cliché. And yet they keep tripping back into the unknowable.

 By the time husband and brother Freddie enters with son and nephew Little Erik on his back, we’re longing for clarity, and these carefree fellows provide it. Freddie is exactly what we expect: a charismatic charlatan capable of keeping sister, wife, and child locked in his thrall. And Joe Estlack certainly knows how to play a man who believes that he’s the loveliest thing God has ever created. And Little Erik? Well, he’s the riot we’ve all been waiting for.

That a physically impaired child, his foot pointing at an impossibly oblique angle, should signal both dramatic action and his parents’ failures is an obscenity. And that’s the beauty of both Ibsen’s play, Jackson’s liberal re-imagining of it, and young Jack Wittmayer's striking and controlled performance as Erik. We’re asked to see purely symbolic relations realized in strict realism, as if deformity itself could speak for a society’s ills. It can’t, but then the play proceeds as if it can and you’re forced into the ugly position of nodding your head in agreement: yes, this is what a life of heedless self-involvement will get you—a deformed kid.

That’s about as morally suspect as you can get (just wait until the Mexican witch appears) and yet by embracing a clichéd and flawed symbolism, Jackson forces us to take account of how we mis-perceive the world. The symbolic elements of Little Erik aren’t there as an aesthetic, but rather as a strategy to a more forceful realism and accounting of the world. And for the first 70 minutes of this 80-minute play, Jackson achieves a terrific balance between our corrupt fantasies and his steely commitment to depicting them.

Unfortunately, Jackson ultimately abandons realism for symbolism. Instead of having his characters stumble towards some sort of peace or hell, he uses nature as an idea--brute and arbitrary--to end the play. This misses the dramatic logic of the drama's singular image and title: Little Erik's body and Wittmayer's commanding performance.

It’s a disappointing end to an otherwise excellent night out at the theater. But it’s also a demonstration of how difficult morally-engaged, aesthetically-daring art can be. There’s Jackson walking a tightrope, and when he reaches the end, looking for one more flourish, he falls. And you can’t help but think about the boy Erik, and how his misshapen body is overburdened with an excess of meaning. Even mangled, both character and play demand our attention. We cannot look away.

In Jennifer Haley’s sci-fi thriller, The Nether, at SF Playhouse, the dramatist does the looking away for us, as the play is quite explicit about what we are not seeing: a pedophile's dream of the perfectly available little girl; the brutal rejection of that dream in ritual violence; and finally, the fantasy of knowing that none of it matters, that you can indulge in your most heinous desires without consequence. Or in more brutal terms, The Nether is about fucking a child, killing a child, and then having the pleasure of that child coming back to life for more of the same for as long as you want.

All of this plays out over the well-worn clichés of cop drama and dystopic science fiction. Morris, a young and startlingly unconvincing detective, interrogates Sims, a flustered gentleman of the old school, over his creation of a virtual reality website for pedophiles called "the Hideaway." Sims, aka Papa, argues that he’s within his rights, that it is not real, that there are no actual children involved, and that by providing an outlet for deviants he’s making the real world safer. Haley’s writing style in these interrogation scenes is classic Law & Order, only with inferior craftsmanship and thought.

The scenes in the fantasy world of the Hideaway are better, especially those between a customer, Doyle, aka Woodnut, and Iris, a pre-pubescent, virtual girl. But there’s a lie at the center of this play that has to do with the casting of an actual child in the role of a virtual one.

Great moral art should make you feel uncomfortable. But here the discomfort has nothing to do with artistry. When the virtual Iris begins her seduction of Woodnut, what we are really watching is a young actress enact the fantasies of a pedophile. It is the exact opposite of what the play would have us understand we're experiencing: Haley believes she's depicting a virtual encounter, but we're actually seeing and experiencing a real one, albeit under the guise of fiction. It's a misapprehension of the theater, where every actor's body is fundamentally real, especially a child's, and especially when that child is initiating sex with an adult.

That Haley ends the scene before anything technically happens is a necessity of casting a child. But her decision underscores a rather technical notion of what’s appropriate for a child to perform. Both the playwright and SF Playhouse seem to believe that it is merely the depiction of sex that must be avoided. This seems naïve—at least to me.

This inability of the producers to think through the ethics and mechanics of production, alongside the playwright's limited notion of realism and reticence to depict the full obscenity of pedophilia, are all signs of a bankrupt imagination. Would it matter if Haley were a better writer? Could she then get away with casting a child? Probably, yes. But that play would be something immense, wild, and caring, where all we have here is the narcissism of false daring.

‘Little Erik’ runs through February 28th at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.

 ‘The Nether’ runs through March 5th at the SF Playhouse in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.

ReviewsJohn WilkinsComment