Anton's Well's 'dirty butterfly' is poetic, then something else

English playwright debbie tucker green’s dirty butterfly, receiving its Bay Area premiere with Anton’s Well Theater Company under Robert Estes astute direction, tries to radically represent two contrary modes of consciousness: the hazy symbolism of our imaginations and the horrid state of being alert to every aspect of reality.

Or put another way, the nightmare of creating our nightmares and the nightmare of living our nightmares. By the end of the evening you might ask if there’s any respite. What our imaginations hint at turns out to be just a glimpse of the full-blown disaster in front of us.

We’re watching poor people, people of little means, though the exact circumstances are difficult to pin down. All we know is that the walls of their apartments are paper-thin and that they can hear every whisper of their neighbors’ lives. They even talk through the walls, as if they were all in the same room.

green understands that we’re all eavesdroppers. Some of us resist and others go for it—I once followed a fighting couple through a bookstore, zig-zagging and ducking through aisles because I had to find out the answer to the woman’s accusation, “I can’t believe that you…” I knew I would be haunted for the rest of my life if I didn’t find out.

So I understand Jason, who baldly states—“In my room I sit there listening … Me by myself – listening out.” Amelia, who seems to have some sort of hazy relationship with him, at least enough to call him Jase, is the resistor and appears, at first, to be the hero of the piece. She is the one who will guide us to sense. And then Jo, the devil: her realm is sex. Of course she is the nosiest of the three.

Nothing is readily apparent in either the play or production and it takes a while to gain our bearings. Estes stages this aural encounter in a triangle: the inquisitive Jason and the anarchic Jo against the wall bathed in pools of light. At the tip of the triangle, Amelia, her bed the lone representation of actual architecture, rages against all the talk.

So in an odd way, green’s play starts out as a polemic against the noise of others and, more pointedly, the noise of the white Jo who invades the space of the black Amelia. Strangely, the black Jason’s desire to hear what is going on in Jo’s apartment feels like a racial betrayal, though Green never allows us to veer too far towards any explicit interpretation. You’re going to have to feel your way into the story to get this one.

And feeling our way through is exactly the state Green wants us in, open and searching for answers. There are a good deal of anti-realistic plays that lead us through dreamscapes and half-realized modes of consciousness. Anton’s Well has produced two within the last year or so—Phillip Ridley’s Tender Napalm and Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis—and they are defiantly resistant to coming towards, or working to some kind of common reality. Everything will remain unanswered.

Fine, the debate between the overly poetic and the prosaic power of realism is probably a false one anyway, or one so nuanced that it hardly matters what we think. Nonetheless, green has her own way around what dreams may become and they definitely lose their hazy veneer here. Whatever initial confusion we suffer in the play’s first forty minutes is cast aside in the play’s last twenty.

It’s a bit of a shocker and so I’ll leave the details to you.

A Few Notes on Anton’s Well Theater Company

Unlike so many theater companies, young and old, Anton’s Well has an aesthetic identity. They gravitate to the poetic, diffuse, and dreamy, three related but distinct states. Their earlier productions of Ridley and Kane were daring small theater attempts to create a worldview out of slender means. Why not let dance and minimal lighting guide them through these notoriously dense texts.

dirty butterfly is both a continuation and a break from that mission.

Despite my admiration for Estes and his company’s ambitions, I’ve felt that their productions were always one performance short of successful and in need of a much clearer sense of design. They lacked dramatic focus and not really because of the plays. With the daring dirty butterfly, they’ve taken some real steps forward.

The three-person cast is sharp and attuned to each other with a standout performance by Kim Donovan as Jo. Though I still want Estes to clean up his production in basic ways—Amelia’s initial costume, the blocking, even the minimal props—though you can sense a much greater directorial command and control in this outing.

So, this is an experience a free audience should want, not wholly successful or fully professional, but alive and vibrant. You should see it and demand that they get better and better and better. That’s always the test for the daring and new.

dirty butterfly runs through October 7 at the Waterfront Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.