The Gypsy Chain
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., Aug. 24, 2001
The Gypsy Chain: Forest for the Trees
Cultural Center for the Mexican American Arts,
through September 1
Running Time: 3 hrs, 20 min
The dirigo group's staged story of David "Gypsy" Chain, an Earth First! activist who was killed defending the forests of Northern California from illegal clear-cutting by imperious corporate interests, is a labor of love. Laura Somers, director and co-author of this ensemble-developed project (she shares the scriptwriting credit with Andrea Ciannavei), was a close friend of Chain's. And Chain's sister, Sarah, plays the part of the narrator of a story that lyricizes the life, and death, of a young man who discovered the meaning of his existence deep in a magical redwood forest.
No matter the lyricism or the love, ultimately, this production, created over the course of five months through improvisation, research, and soul searching by something like 40 artists, loses the forest for the trees, theatrically speaking. It's a case of a company's reach far exceeding its grasp. And while the group should be applauded for the sheer scope of the work, and its promotion of activism, the onstage effectiveness of The Gypsy Chain falls well short of its sociopolitical message, while the personal angle, Gypsy's story, is often lost in the muddied construction of a play that isn't sure exactly what it wants to be.
At any moment, the production could be a rock opera, a docudrama, a fairy tale, a dream play, a political diatribe, a Brechtian epic, a requiem, a parody, or a melodrama. And this discord shows. There is no discernible rhythm or dramatic structure, no unifying style. Individual scenes may have solid moments, but all are long, many dither in their intent, and scenes of conflict wind up shrill shouting matches between intractable opposites: the activists and the loggers.
The play is politically oversimplistic, portraying naturalistic good guys (the activists) against two-dimensional bad guys (the loggers, the corporate weasels, the police). While some attempt is made to make the loggers more than knee-jerk, naysaying opposites in the argument, they still come off drone-like with their chainsaw lockstep dance and oft-repeated credo: "If it casts a shadow, cut it down." Dimensionless bad guys make for boring adversaries and uninteresting theatre, especially when it lasts more than three hours. The one time an activist betrays the code of nonviolent resistance and beats a logger with a large stick has no repercussions in terms of the political dialogue; it just leads to a bigger, louder fight -- and the missed opportunity to get beyond the surface of the argument.
The actors are of mixed experience and ability, and director Somers doesn't do enough to maintain any precision in the acting. Characters range over a variety of excesses. There are the cartoonish: Corey Gagne's bad capitalist, Uncle Charlie; or Amie Elyn's one-note Sheriff (she speaks through a bullhorn). And there are the hyper-realistic: Judson L. Jones' Big A, in whom Jones infuses too much internal anguish, given to guttural mutterings and much bowing of his head. Somewhere in the middle are more measured performances, most notably Russ Roten as Sleeper, an ex-lawyer turned Earth First! leader. Greg Gondek puts his charismatic energies into the role of Gypsy. But too often he is an observer and inert; rarely does he get the chance to exercise what appears to be a Christ-like gift to calm and unify disparate elements in a conflict. Sometimes he just disappears into the convoluted story.
Soldiers on the front lines of a war, whether fought with guns or through peaceful civil disobedience, tend to be young and idealistic. The same can be said for youthful theatre artists who wear their hearts on their sleeves, especially when playing political subject matter that speaks to their personal beliefs. The players believe, fiercely believe, in what they are doing. And they love, fiercely love, David "Gypsy" Chain and his memory, bringing honest emotion to this tale. But proximity makes it hard to see the bigger picture. So while the ensemble clearly connects at a personal level to its subject, it hasn't necessarily made a good play of it.