Dante is mentally ill—hears a voice like the devil's through a bullhorn—but bridges every synaptic gulf with bubbly enthusiasm and New Age platitudes, which is apparently how he recruits two otherwise normal/ balanced friends, Virgil and Bernice, for the ultimate road trip: from Orange County to Greenland by car.
The road trip is a convention of literature, of course, from the travelogues of Herodotus, Yuan Chwang and Marco Polo through the Viking sagas, the Jewish Book of Exodus, Shakespeare's Henry V, Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Kerouac's On the Road. Playwright (and Weekly theater critic) Joel Beers delights in playing off some of these and others: his characters Virgil and Dante are the main actors in Christian theology's most notable road trip ("Bernice" is a corruption of "Beatrice," Dante's muse); another character is known as the prince or "the wizard," as in L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz; and when this show finally hits the road, we see that the car's license plate reads, "FURTHER," a reference to Ken Kesey's infamous 1960s-era bus trip with his psychedelic-driven Merry Pranksters.
Going to Greenland is Beers' homage to Kesey and everyone else who ever romanticized insanity—updated with Beers' and director Patrick Gwaltney's exceptional postmodern gift for cinematic quick cuts; seamless scene transitions; Pirandello-style discussions among characters, authors and audience about authorial intention; busted fourth walls; and a fabulous live band that integrates itself into the action like a showboating Greek chorus. Kesey's fascination with insanity wasn't unique, but it remains one of the best expressions of the 1960s rebellion against the tyranny of the superego. At their best, Kesey and others of his generation—playwright Jean Genet comes to mind—recognized the totalitarian uses of psychiatry in the modern world; at their worst, Kesey, Genet and the others celebrated insanity. If you start (as they did) from the premise that society is seriously fucked-up, it's no stretch to see mental illness as a reasonable, even admirable, reaction —no stretch, but a grievous and ultimately disastrous misdiagnosis.
But Beers hangs on to this dream of personal liberation through insanity. Dante hears voices and concludes they want him to travel. As played by Bradley A. Whitfield, however, it's hard to believe Virgil and Bernice are so eager to follow him—except that the pair agree to accompany Dante only when they're either stoned or drunk. Dante is supposed to be luminous, a Beat, Zen hipster; instead, he plays like the ugly American, a loud guy with a crooked smile and a laugh that suggests the onset of emphysema. He's a charming drunk without the charm or the alcohol. You reasonably assume there's halitosis involved. Yet when he proposes—or rather insists on—a trip to Greenland, Virgil hesitates but a moment before signing on.
Bernice has inexplicably become this lout's lover, and it's possible (if your life is absolutely without meaning) that a road trip —locked in a car with a nut—is as wondrous as Paris. But Bernice, played with natural grace and intelligence by Teresa Marie, doesn't seem that desperate. She's smart and funny and strong, Beers' chance to correct all the road trips ever launched without significant female leads—Huck and Jim, Bob and Bing, Sal and Dean Moriarty. But if Dante and Virgil represent two polarizing social forces—instinct and impulse as embodied in Dante, and order and discipline in Virgil—Bernice is . . . watching. As a character, she's without motive; as a symbol, she's empty. Women, it turns out, are still along for the ride.
The ride holds the story together, a passage of spontaneity, magical coincidence and spiraling despair that offers us a lesson we already pretty much knew: life is journey, live it to the fullest, follow your star and your bliss. People with jobs, families and obligations are small. People who wander—even because they're simply addled—are heroes.
That was Kesey's message in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and it's nowhere so clear as when it's in the mouth of Noah, an aging hippie in remotest Saskatchewan. It's Noah (played with wonderful natural quality by Spider Madison) who gets to divide the world into two kinds of people: cold people, who "settle for their little jobs and little families and little cozy existences and never really wonder or reach for anything beyond it," and hot people, "who know life ain't all about security, happiness . . . They're hungry for something else . . . just out of reach." Like a cold, frosty Michelob, one suspects. Or Noah's drink of choice: Jack Daniel's warm from the bottle. It seems an unintended irony that Noah is now so miserable that his own travel itinerary includes only a short drink followed by a blackout and a quick death.
Beers is fascinated by big ideas, and if those big ideas are sometimes stale or even objectionable, they still have the power to provoke. And if this play fails at all, it fails grandly—as art rather than premeditated, commercial sellout. It's a measure of the play's successes—the fine ensemble acting (Darri Kristin is exquisite as a blabbermouth hitchhiker, shrewish waitress and hard-bodied ring-card girl), live-music soundtrack, comic timing, subtle set changes and fast pacing—that Gwaltney can get Beers' big ideas to sound natural in the mouths of his cast. Whitfield's Dante is the exception; a man who ought to seem like Moses comes across more like Bukowski. Nick Boicourt Jr.'s Virgil is more natural, but then, he's cast as a schlub and doesn't bear the impossible burden of being a human who is also a hero.
Going to Greenland at Stages, 400 E. Commonwealth, Ste. 4, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through April 14. $12.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Orange County art and theater scene.