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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Wheel

Or: Interesting Times

There is a curse: “May you live in Interesting Times” that the Chinese have been threatening each other with, politely, for centuries. In her new drama Zinnie Harris, has heaped all the interesting times from the past hundred or so years on the head of one woman and goaded her on to see when things become too interesting to handle. A story of the horror’s of war, and the surprising resilience of the human spirit The Wheel has the potential to be a powerful story, a puzzling puzzle and a feather in the cap of any actress, but under the guidance of director Tina Landau, judders and squeaks where it should roll smoothly. The beauty and shock is there but is handled with tongs rather than with bare hands: you have to admit something’s wrong if the reaction to a young mother getting shot in the head is laughter.

Beatriz (Joan Allen) is a practical woman. Having lost her father at a young age she has been running her families farm (not an easy thing to do in 19th Century Spain) and has, for her reward, the pleasure of planning her sister Rosa’s (Chaon Cross) wedding. But when local soldiers commandeer her farm for the war effort and thrust on her strange and silent Girl (Emma Gordon), the child of a deserter, Beatriz sets off with the child in tow so she can reunite father with daughter. Her journey takes her across continents and through time, from the fields of Flanders, to the jungles of Vietnam, to the deserts of Iraq and everywhere in-between. During their travels word of the girl precede them and Beatriz begins to wonder if the little red headed child is more than she appears to be. Something Angelic or Demonic...

In script and production The Wheel is very like the surreal state of Combat it explores: long periods of tedium punctuated randomly by very stressful encounters. Not that the spots of tedium are terribly dull to sit through: Harris peacetime dialog is both witty and poignant, mulling over simple pleasures that an eye blink later are stripped away by some new nail-biting conflict. The ordinary, everyday cares and pains of a world turned upside down are rendered clearly, what could be handled with more finesse is the strangeness of the journey. Neither our heroine, nor we are at all curious about what new war zone we plunge into: after a time it’s all men with guns, acting dangerously and demanding what cannot be given.

Landau and her designers are very proud, and rightly so, of putting up what they refer to as this “impossible play”. The musical interludes, sung by the company do much to set us in the time frame and reattach us to the alienating hostile world. There are some real moments of stage magic to, both beautiful (the butterflies) and blood-chilling (the shoes). But the lingering presence of ‘outsiders’ in the more private scenes, and the sheer complexity of some of the machinery (elevating cages, descending railroad tracks) borders on the obtuse and ludicrous. So much more could have been accomplished with so much less: trust us to fill in a scene with our imagination and we will do it, and just because you have a fly system, multiple projectors, and trap doors does not necessitate their use.

Beatriz is an excellent role, full of self discovery, juicy dilemmas, humor and bitterness. There is something extremely entertaining about seeing adults who have no love of children having to interact with them. Allen plays the part well, building up all sorts of wild impatience before tipping it out and showing us gruff tenderness at the bottom. Sometimes her rages, and off-kilter schemes at communicating with her silent charge come off a little sit-com-y, but towards the end of her journey affectation is scrubbed away and replaced by pure animal response that is engaging as it is uncomfortable.

Other engaging parts include Rossignol (Mark L. Montgomery) a naturalist and magician who assists Beatriz in many surprising ways (a well written purveyor of gentleness in a play that sorely needs it), and Moreno (La Shawn Banks) a farm hand turned solider relishing his new position of power.

Ungreased and encumbered as it may be The Wheel still turns and carries us along on its tumble through the twilight zone and over the mounds of corpses we call the path of history. It is surprising, varied, and full of wonders and provides some very interesting times indeed.

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