Power plays

arts@sfbg.com

THEATER With its storied 35-year history of politically charged and transgressive theater, Theatre Rhinoceros might seem the perfect San Francisco outfit to take on the great English playwright Caryl Churchill’s 2006 political allegory Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? — wherein the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain is metaphorically transformed into a sadomasochistic affair between George Bush and Tony Blair. Or rather, their more expansive stand-ins Sam (Rudy Guerrero), described as “a country,” and Jack (Sam Cohen), described as “a man.” (Jack became “Guy” in the Public Theater’s US premiere, suggesting possibly an American everyman as opposed to a specifically British one).

The premise translates into an opportunity to excavate the seductions and corruptions of power, the homoerotic relationship resonating in complex ways with a larger patriarchal order where sex and death are right on the surface and inextricably linked. Unfortunately, despite the harmonizing at the outset of this 45-minute one-act — in a double rendition of American the Beautiful and God Save the Queen — the production directed by the Rhino’s John Fisher rarely seems in tune with the material.

The staging can be amusing even when obvious, as when Sam rams home his points with robust pelvic thrusts to his partner. But it is unnecessarily busy, with multiple entrances and exits and use of a changing photographic backdrop illustrating various settings, iconic images, and bellicose themes. Of course, all of this might have been OK if the tension, sexual and otherwise, were palpably communicated. But the tension is slack, despite the mildly explicit blocking.

Instead, the actors seem to have their hands full with the challenging dialogue — which, in addition to being tightly intermingled, is non-realistic and poetically compact, deploying the argot of geopolitics as if it were the stuff of intimate cooing and romantic tussling. Sam demands “total commitment” from his lover, for instance, but Jack is a family man divided in his loyalties, and moreover has moral qualms about some of Sam’s more outré behavior, despite the carnal lust it can also arouse. It’s a rare moment when Guerrero and Cohen convincingly connect this heightened dialogue with their rambunctious interactions.

The dialogue also makes use of a litany of high crimes committed by the US government, and its ally Britain, since the Second World War — a verbal onslaught that carries its own force by virtue of its magnitude and extent, rescuing from banality the individual crimes (from Vietnam to El Salvador to Guantanamo) made too familiar by repetition. But the power that derives from the juxtaposition of a romantic affair and this index of world-rocking brutality somehow gets lost when the production attempts to act out too much of the relationship. Ironically, the more it tries to show, the less we register the true political pornography on display.

A similar disconnect attends the second half of the evening: a staging of the 10-minute play Churchill wrote in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s devastating 2008 attack on Gaza, Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, which the Rhino balances with New York playwright Deborah Margolin’s dramatic response to Churchill, Seven Palestinian Children: A Play for the Other.

As in the first play, Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children combines moral outrage with a keen formal logic, and is capable of subtleties that belie its compact and deceptively simple structure. In a series of short, regular phrases, a set of parental voices discuss what to tell a young female child about the world she has been born into. The short scenes begin in Nazi Germany and end in 2008, covering seven decades of Jewish Israeli experience. Its coruscating and certainly provocative evocations seamlessly progress from the Holocaust to the colonizing of Palestine and the repression, in turn, of its indigenous Arab population.

The staging is again probably busier than it needs to be, since the force of the rhythmic dialogue (given histrionic emphasis by Cohen and Kim Stephenson as a married couple) is somewhat dissipated when haltingly delivered across multiple scene changes and the insertion of visual and chronological cues on the screen at the back of the stage. But the short work has raised dialogue and debate internationally, and it’s long overdue for a production by a major Bay Area company. (The Rhino audience is invited to stay and discuss both plays afterward.)

Balance may be the objective in following this piece with Margolin’s Seven Palestinian Children, but there is something lopsided about it just the same. Part of the problem is that Margolin’s tit-for-tat response dulls the force of the impression left by the first play by co-opting its form and yet deploying it in a less muscular way. Indeed, Seven Palestinian Children (performed by Guerrero as a hotheaded Palestinian father and Stephenson as a more compassionate Palestinian mother) not only trades in the kinds of gendered stereotypes eschewed by Churchill’s piece but, in substituting a male child for the female one, raises an uncomfortable gender dynamic in the very representation of Israel vis-à-vis Palestine. That may be latent in the Churchill play to some extent, but in making it explicit the pairing of plays risks being more obfuscating than clarifying of the relevant issues.

DRUNK ENOUGH TO SAY I LOVE YOU?

Wed/12-Sat/15, 8pm; Sun/16, 3pm, $15-$30

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1117 Market, SF

www.therhino.org