ART's "O.P.C.": Conspicuous Presumption

Peter Porte (Damien), Nicole Lowrance (Kansas), Kate Mulligan (Smith),
 Michael T. Weiss (Bruce) & Olivia Thirlby (Romi) in ART's "O.P.C."
(photo: Evgenia Eliseena, ART) 

On entering the Loeb Theater for ART’s latest production, “O.P.C.”, the audience was greeted by an overwhelmingly cluttered and impressively detailed set filled with the detritus of modern life. Counterprogamming for the holiday season, garlands of empty plastic water bottles and solitary mittens hang from the rafters, amid countless empty produce cartons, several dumpsters, Barbie dolls that have seen better days, discarded wooden palettes and other trash literally littering the stage. It’s either indicative of a limitless set design budget, or a nonexistent one, given the availability of such “found objects”; in fact, Scenic Designer Brett J. Banakis seemed to be channeling sculptor Louise Nevelson with a much more colorful palette. It’s an extraordinarily effective creation as a backdrop for the first act, an astonishing and mesmerizing mess.

Sadly, this could equally be said of this work by established playwright Eve Ensler (Obie Award Winner for her “Vagina Monologues”), which itself is astonishing and messy, but not in a good way. This play, a world premiere, with a title referencing a diagnosis of Obsessive Political Correctness (one of scant few inventive elements), is a product of a feminist activist with a good deal of street cred who was deservedly honored with a special Tony Award for her humanitarian work in the fight to end violence against women. “Vagina Monologues” led to the creation of the global V-Day effort and the One Billion Rising movement to end such violence. So it’s not much of a stretch to say that anticipation was high that this current work might lead to further pleas to activism, this time regarding global warming, unbridled consumption and waste. The play concerns all of these issues and more, but leads less to activism than ennui, featuring caricatures rather than characters, hubris instead of humor, and dialogue which is literal as opposed to literate. Along the way there are also puerile allusions to (undeniable) white male supremacy, such as “using boy metaphors” and “this feels like what it must be to be born a white man”, and unaccountably cheap shots at Oprah and Barbara Walters, the latter including her oft-satirized speech impediment (“Saturday Night Live”, anyone?), and predictably lame jokes.

The story centers around its two female antagonists, the squatter and “freegan” Romi (Olivia Thirlby), and her mother Smith (Kate Mulligan), a Senate candidate, and their interactions with Romi’s father Bruce (Michael T. Weiss), her sister Kansas (Nicole Lowrance), her boyfriend Damien (Peter Porte), and others including Mrs. M. (Nancy Linehan Charles), Sister Ro (Liz Mikel), and Prakash (Babak Tafti). All appear to have been urged to be shrill (as Directed by Pesha Rudnik with Movement by Jill Johnson). The remaining creative artistic elements include the devastatingly clever Costume Design by ESosa, intricate Lighting Design by Bradley King, complex Sound Design by Jane Shaw and well-executed Projection Design by Shawn Sagady.

Thirlby presents a moving if overly extended meltdown in a pair of Prada “stinky boots” that ends the first act. In the second act, the actors (and the set) seem to be in another, more surreal play, basically a non-stop stream of psychobabble. Once again the male characters are trashed (no pun intended): the husband/father figure admits to playing second fiddle to his wife the politician, admitting that loving her is his fulltime occupation; the boyfriend is described as prefering winning to being right, and a mere “asset”. But the females are also skewered, from the power-seeking matriarch to the blandly-named “Kansas”, an irony the latter hasn’t missed. What’s equally ironic is the conspicuous presumption that Freegans are unaware of their dependence for survival on the very societal system they abhor; this isn’t a novel criticism of the movement, but Ensler offers no valid defense or alternative. The huge targets Ensler has taken on this time include liberals (especially those within the Democratic Party), and the usual lip service given to saving the planet. Up against this she presents approaches such as urban foraging, rediscovering vs. discarding garbage, and even “high trashion”. This last element was at least initially funny, but eventually overdone as is most of this overwritten play.

Is the one-time-only omission of printed programs (which audience members were informed of in advance, but this critic is of the opinion that this decision doesn't recognize sufficiently the lifelong careers of both cast and crew) supposed to be part of an overall solution, or is it, by the very nature of its being a “one-off”, mere tokenism? Is satire, however flawed, a viable answer? And is this whole effort one of preaching to the saved? One hopes that Ensler has more potent, more pointed, more politically incorrect plays in her future that more urgently reflect the activism of her past.

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