On first hearing the premise of this production, I admit to being intrigued but mislead. A scientist develops a serum to de-evolve a man, and tests it on Seymour, an unwitting poet? Sounds like a silly comedy–that was the least of it. This show was certainly funny, bordering on absurd one second, satirical the next. But my mind was quickly opened to a broader, deeper set of questions, about society, about science, about medicine. It was an exciting experience, sitting in the theater amid slapstick humor and jokes about penis conditions, to suddenly face the darker elements of human “progress”. Playwright Allison Volk was the saving grace of a broad-humored, small-scale show. Her mediation between comedy and social discourse was deft, never letting her audience get bogged down in too much silliness, or in too much intellectual indulgence.
In her program note, Volk wrote about theater’s function of encouraging audiences to “learn to question our intentions and our contribution to the world regularly”. This play definitely fulfilled that goal, and its success came through several different means, including the play’s setting, and its written style.
Firstly, lets talk about the era of Seymour. Though this story could have been told in any age that involves ‘modern’ medicine, I found it thought-provoking that Volk chose to set it in the 1950’s. For one thing, the absurdity of the plot mixing with an old-fashioned visual aesthetic gave the comedy a boost. This effect was reminiscent of those early sitcoms like I Love Lucy or Bewitched, with the hysteria of the characters and situations set against nostalgic flowery hats, crinoline skirts, fedoras and high-waisted trousers.
The enduring effect of the 50s era setting was its connection to the themes of the play. Seymour was a confrontational discussion of issues of morality in science and medicine. To set it out of its audiences’ own time was, to my mind, to alleviate the pressures of that spiky subject. Its much easier to examine a problem if you are less personally attached to it, or at least appear to be. This particular discussion is absolutely a current one, considering the immense overgrowth of the pharmaceutical industry in a time when there seems to be a pill for every human problem. Setting Seymour in the past encourages a distanced observation of the issue, one that is ideally less weighted by personal experience or opinion.
One example of Volk’s critique of medicine cropped up repeatedly throughout the show. Seymour becomes agitated during each trip to the doctor, and the doctor sedates him despite his wordless protests. To me, this action spoke to the problem of overmedicating. Contemporary western society is so obsessed with fixing every small behavioral or physical issue that we often over-diagnose or create issues where there are none.
I also noted the consistent references to the morality (or potential amorality) of scientific practice. The Doctor, who is delightfully named “Doctor” by Volk, would often lapse into self-aggrandizing monologues about the importance, nay, necessity of his work. The play’s title is a cheeky reference to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, an obsession of the Doctor’s. He uses the controversial musical piece, which sparked riots along with a new wave of modern artistry, to justify his hijacking of human evolution, blathering on about the sacrifice of humane or moral practice for the advancement of scientific progression.
Aside from being thought-provoking in their own right, these monologues really delved into the thematic integrity of the play. If there were any doubt as to what this play was supposed to be about, it was erased the minute Doctor began his lectures (notably addressed directly to the audience, though the character made no sign of noticing them during scenes with others).
Volk’s play is a witty, brassy prod at society, and it deserves a stronger production than it received. The cast and costumes were generally excellent, but they became trapped in the black box theater, a tiny single room space comprised in this case of just about 60 seats. With a premise as nutty as Seymour‘s, where a fully grown man hops about the stage, climbing walls and leaping on furniture, the space crowded the action, with a slightly uncomfortable affect.
However, the theater doesn’t need to be totally condemned either. It was very charming and satisfying to see a smaller company branching out of what might be considered suitable for a black box. Son of Semele and the Drive Theater have stretched the seams of normalcy, just as Helena, Seymour’s besotted wife, must stretch her seams to find the man that is now her monkey.