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Some Explicit Polaroids

Torn Space Theater continues its exploration of British “In-yer-Face” drama with Mark Ravenhill’s 1999 play Some Explicit Polaroids, which opens next week. Over the past few years, Torn Space has produced Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Cleansed, Anthony Neilson’s Normal, as well as Philip Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe. These plays are characterized by a gritty brutality, a withering view of contemporary values, and a youthful urge to shock.

The phrase “In-yer-Face” was coined in Britain by Aleks Sierz to describe some of the playwrights who were emerging in the mid-1990s, primarily at London’s Royal Court. I was well acquainted with Stephen Daldry, the artistic director at the Court during this period—he was the boyfriend of my former roommate—and I always took his contention that only the violent preoccupations of playwrights in their early 20s were of theatrical interest to be a kind of careerist strategy, modeled on the Royal Court’s 1956 championing of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. That’s not a slam; it worked.

Ravenhill and the others lumped in the In-yer-Face category—Sarah Kane, Anthony Neilson, and so forth—are the sort of playwrights with whom critics become obsessed, but from whom they often withhold approval. Writing about Some Explicit Polaroids, Chicago critic Hedy Weiss described Ravenhill’s tendency to gravitate toward “all the cheapest and most dependable shock techniques—simulated oral sex, a flash of nudity, even a touch of necrophilia.” And lest you get the wrong impression, she did not intend this to be a compliment. Weiss, and others like her, did not respond to touches of contemporary Grand-Guignol with amusement.

“Mark Ravenhill, one of Britain’s new crop of angry young playwrights, has devised a very clever but ultimately self-defeating formula for his work,” Weiss complained. “He wants to have it both ways—to be a force of truth-telling and moral challenge, but also to get attention. It doesn’t work that way, as he should be smart enough to know.”

I don’t quite understand why it can’t work that way. It seems to me that through plays like Shopping and Fucking, Sleeping Around, and Some Explicit Polaroids, it worked exactly that way. The In-yer-Face mission, to create “the kind of theatre which grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message,” was destined to be short-lived, as it does not take long to get the message while being shaken, nor does it take long to tire from such treatment.

Weiss was hardly alone in her condemnation. The late Jack Tinker of London’s Daily Mail called Sarah Kane’s first play, Blasted, “This disgusting feast of filth.” Other critics were so horrified that there was a call for government funding to be yanked from the Royal Court. Stephen Daldry claimed to be getting one press call a minute for the next two weeks. (As an homage, Kane named a particularly odious character “Tinker” in her play, Cleansed.)

Still, like punk rock, In-yer-Face marks an important cultural moment.

Ravenhill has moved on since Shopping and Polaroids hit the scene. So has Daldry; he would become the director of such films as The Hours, Billy Elliott, and The Reader. (He even moved on from my friend to a heterosexual marriage. Stephen always had a genius for careerist strategies.) In this context, Torn Space’s visit to this territory is a kind of reconnaissance mission, letting Buffalo get a glimpse of these plays before they recede too far into the past.

This Rip Van Winkle moment is ironic, given the plot of Polaroids, which picked up on news items of the 1990s involving certain 1960s radicals who had changed their identities to hide out from the consequences of criminal acts. They changed their names and hid behind the disguise of middle-class respectability for decades. In the play, Nick has just been released from jail after serving a 15-year sentence. Woefully out of step with the times, and with nowhere else to turn, he seeks out “Helen,” the very woman who launched his life of crime by goading him into his fateful act of violence in the first place. Helen, it turns out, has long since abandoned radical politics, and has now launched a mainstream political career. Adding an additional twist, Nick’s victim, Jonathan, also appears on the scene, and is not feeling especially forgiving.

Ariel Dorfman might have considered this threesome with a shared past enough for play, but from Ravenhill we get more. From this point, Nick moves into the hedonistic, world of sex and drugs of the 1990s—and it is certainly in this territory that Ravenhill lost Weiss and critics of her ilk. The In-yer-Face playwrights were never content merely to “talk” about what they could get actors to recreate. And so we meet Nadia, the archetypal abused woman; Tim, an over-privileged gay man whose AIDS medicines have prolonged his life beyond his desire to live it; and Victor, the hot but emotionally numb Russian boy-whore.

Some Explicit Polaroids is being directed by David Oliver, who also directed Fastest Clock. The cast features some prominent Buffalo actors, including Phil Knoerzer, Kristen Tripp-Kelly, Richard Lambert, Kelly Meg Brennan, and Kurt Guba, with Nathan Winkelstein. The production opens on February 25 at 8, and runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through March 20, and on March 21, also at 8 p.m. at the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Ave. Call 812-5733 for ticket reservations and further information.