Photo by Jack GouldPing Chong's Truth and Beautyis open to wildly varying interpretations. One reader might be most affected by Chong's wicked, trenchant assessment of America's postmodern consumer culture. Another might be intrigued by Chong's commentary on guns and teenagers.
Or by the abuses inflicted on innocents in the name of promoting democracy.
Or the multimedia mosaic Chong's script demands.
But Jay Fraley—one of two actors charged with pulling off this demanding, intensely technical, two-person play—says he brought Truth and Beautyto director Eric Eisenbrey because it's that rarest kind of performance art: it's good.
"The first time I read this script, I was struck by how it was a really intelligent, well-written and well-constructed piece of performance art and how it would be a very good thing to bring into our repertory," says Fraley, a lifelong fan of LA performance-art icons Rachel Rosenthal and John Fleck.
Fraley performs in the play's West Coast premiere (with Rude Guerrilla stalwart Andrew Nienaber), and he's one of Orange County's most versatile and believable actors. He's able to crawl into the skin of characters ranging from the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerieto Satan himself and seem genuine in whatever role.
That's not what this play requires—and that's exactly what attracted Fraley. "This play isn't kitchen-sink reality; it's not character-driven," Fraley says. "It's very much driven by the playwright's political view, and with so much dancing and movement and synchronization and everything else involved, it's also very technique-oriented."
For instance, near the play's end, a rabbi converses with a killer. The conversation evolves into an exploration of the existence of God. Method acting and its derivatives would call for an actor to approach that situation by trying to find the character's emotional truth—"Be the Rabbi." Chong, however, is "very specific," Fraley says, "wants the actor rocking and moving and becoming progressively more erratic and the dialogue becoming progressively more erratic. The nature of the speech doesn't involve some strong emotional level as much as it requires a really strong sense of timing and structure and rhythm and making it work with the language."
All this talk of technique and performance art would be interesting but ultimately meaningless if there were nothing else to Truth and Beauty.But Chong's play is compelling in its intellectual density. It's hard to describe what the play is about because it's about so much. The two actors portray a wide range of characters, from TV ad designers and troubled teens to absent fathers and nun-raping soldiers of fortune. The closest thing to a linear throughline, according to director Eisenbrey, is the recurring character of a young man "who is a product" of corporate America's campaign to raise a world of good consumers—even if it means destroying the rest of the world in the process.
"This is an underlying character who is sick of all that he has been fed and sick of his father who can't communicate with him—and that's why he leaves society and drives around for six months," Eisenbrey says.
The young man's story is brought full-circle when a couple of slick ad designers realize that this "disaffected" and "very angry" youth driving aimlessly on the highway and who is "sick of everything around him" is "very, very, very . . . American." He is, in other words, a demographic, a consumer icon. "Think James Dean," the ad designers say. "Think Kurt Cobain, think Timothy McVeigh. . . . It's about co-opting the loner image . . . but at the same time making everyone proud of those open roads—red, white and blue. . . . We're going to compress everything this guy hates about our society into a 30-second, prime-time spot, and we are going to redeem him."
Redeem him with what? The product these guys are pitching, of course.
That idea would make an interesting play in itself. But Chong is supremely talented (he has won a slew of big, East Coast-type awards, including a 2000 OBIE Award for Sustained Achievement), creative and angry. In his hands, the story is suddenly timely; Chomskian ideas pepper the script. The play's broadest theme is encapsulated in a passage that Chong says should be delivered by an onscreen whisper:
"The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."
And how does that propaganda effort manifest itself? In what Marx called commodity fetishism—in the creation of a culture in which desire and identity fuse with commodities in order to make the thought of owning a world of things equal to love and happiness.
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"There has never been a propaganda effort to match the advertising effort in the 20th century in the history of the world," says a character in Truth and Beauty. "More thought, more effort, more creativity, more time, more attention to detail has gone into selling the immense accumulation of commodities than any other campaign to change public consciousness in human history."
Later, an unseen voice asks us to think about what TV ads tell us about the world we live in. The voice relates some examples of commercials: winter turning to summer at the blink of an eye; a simple shampoo bringing intense sexual pleasure; sunglass-clad ballpoint pens staring at inviting women in bikinis; old women becoming suddenly young, offering sex and beer to young men. "If an anthropologist from Mars were to look at the society where these messages were everywhere, they'd conclude that this society is dominated by a belief in magic," the voice continues. "Where goods have incredible power."
It's difficult to say what's more mind-bending in this conversation about Truth and Beauty:capitalism as the most sublimely revolutionary society of all, or performance art that is really, really good.
Truth and Beauty at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Sept. 29. $12-$15.