Timbuktu, USA - Sleeping Weazel
Timbuktu, USA – Sleeping Weazel
Review by James Wilkinson
Timbuktu, USA is presented by Sleeping Weazel. Written and Directed by Kenneth Prestininzi. Assistant Director: Teresa Cruz. Scenic Designer: Samantha Butler. Lighting Designer: Aja M. Jackson. Costume Designer: Ashley Elizabeth Meret. Fight Choreographer: Drew Frayre.
There’s an old theatre lore (and God, do I hope it’s true), that Eugene Ionesco, grandfather of French absurdism, originally wanted his play The Bald Soprano to end with the massacre of the audience by machine gun. I don’t know how seriously he made the suggestion (or for that matter, what he planned to do with all of the corpses), but in a rather perverse sort of way, I understand the logic behind it. You sit in the theatre watching the absurdity before you growing exponentially; by the end all sense of logic is gone, language itself has dissolved, the play’s very structure threatens to implode, and you think to yourself “What next? Where could we possible go from here?” In the face of true absurdity, death just seems inevitable.
I was thinking of Ionesco’s proposed ending while watching Sleeping Weazel’s newest production, Timbuktu, USA, now playing at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Taken as a whole, the play inspires a similar response in the audience. (I swear I mean that in a good way). It’s not that I was afraid for my life, but the play manages to reach such deep peaks of comic absurdity that eventually all you can do is throw up your hands and say “Alright. Oblivion, here we come!” I highly recommend that you give in and do just that. Writer/director Kenneth Prestininzi’s play is a darkly fascinating piece of work. It holds your gaze and makes you fearful of turning away and missing some new piece of the puzzle. The ultimate joke just may be that there is no larger puzzle to solve, but by the end it’ll have proven that it’s a hell of a ride to hitch yourself to.
The U.S. Secretary of State, a power-hungry woman with a penchant for pantsuits, would very much like to be President but doesn’t feel that she has a chance as she’s an unmarried woman of a certain age. She thinks, though, that her senator nephew has a shot. They just need to marry him off to a woman, allowing him to present a wholesome image that hides a number of sexual dalliances with a fleet of male naval officers. The bride-to-be they pick is a sheltered homeschooled girl who grew up down the street from the Secretary of State and who would much rather marry, the Secretary of State’s pet monkey.
The above is a basic description of the opening act of Timbuktu, USA but really the setup is used as more of a jumping off point than anything else. It would be a fool’s errand to try to describe everything that happens in the course of the 100 minute play as it would take about ten pages and would appear ridiculous to the point of incoherence. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you some of the places this play goes. However, to get caught up in the logic (or lack thereof) would be to miss much of the fun and pleasure that the production offers. What playwright Prestininzi presents is a bit more primal than your typical narrative (and I don’t just say that because of the primate on stage).
I would even argue that there aren’t even any characters on stage here (characters in the traditional sense where you watch a distinct personality operate along an internal logic). That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a choice in style. What Prestininzi seems more interested in presenting is a collection of comic caricatures completely bereft of anything resembling a mental filter and letting them have at each other like ids gone wild. They speak in a hyper-stylized, blunt manner, spitting out bits of exposition only when they need it to prove a point. Everyone does exactly what they want to do at the exact moment they want to do it with little thought to what’s come before. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that designer Samantha Butler’s set vaguely resembles a playroom. We’re watching adults squabble like children as the play turns into a Freudian soup of sexual hang-ups, obsessions over virginity and erotic desire directed towards that pet monkey (It makes sense in context).
Thankfully, Prestininzi has assembled a cast that commits to every loopy path the characters go down and bounce off of each other with glee. As the Secretary of State, Veronica Wiseman delivers a barn burner of a comedic performance. She takes every curveball that the script tosses her way runs with it without flinching. Just as you think that she couldn’t possibly top herself, she does. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
What’s all of this madness in service of? Well, that’s a bit trickier to put your finger on and at times I think the play wavers on exactly what it wants to do. But after all, a truly absurdist work wouldn’t have a point. The tag line for the play is “A hungry and ridiculous play about political naiveté.” There are times when Prestininzi seems to be dissecting the crazed and driven personality someone who wants to be president may need to have. The Secretary of State opens the play referring to herself with the royal “we.” Later on, with her lover’s face shoved into her lap, she cries out in ecstasy how she wants to be president. It’s a deranged portrait of a person in power that I would guess is in conversation with another French absurdist drama, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. Both plays have a similar approach to language and focus on unbalanced leaders in positions of power although Timbuktu, USA never quite commits to the crass humor that Jarry’s play does. How you interpret the politics of the Prestininzi’s play is probably going to depend on your own personal beliefs. Should you be more of a left leaning individual you’ll see a lot of Trump’s child-like and power-hungry in the Secretary of State’s character. If you’re more right-leaning, you’ll most likely take the character’s references to Hilary Clinton at face value.
I could go on (but I’ll spare you). The truth is that’s there’s probably a PhD dissertation’s worth of material here to pick apart and analyze. All of that is just the icing on the cake, though. The most important thing to get across is that the production does its job exceedingly well. It’s wildly funny with a sharp edge and an joyously mad evening of comic theater. Just like with Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, the play ends and you ask yourself, “Where do we go from here?” Perhaps that’s just the political question we all need to be asked right now.
Timbuktu, USA is presented by Sleeping Weazel at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre August 25-September 2, 2018.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.sleepingweazel.com