They Walk the Line

Blue Shade. Photo courtesy Bryan Reynolds.

Try to get UC Irvine professor Bryan Reynolds to pitch you his philosophy of transversal theater in one sentence. Picking his words carefully, he begins: "A bomb goes off in an office . . ."

A bomb goes off in an office.

Everyone who worked there, every person isolated in their own gray metal cubicle, is suddenly thrown from the 9-to-5 grind of their daily existence into the same experience.?Where once they were surrounded by red staplers, piles of paper and computer monitors, barely noticing each other except when they had to, they are now sharing a visceral moment together.?As each person tries to create an understanding of what just happened, as one person's thoughts overlaps another's, as people bond together to sort through the damage and pick up the pieces of one another, something unique happens.?However momentarily, those people are brought together. They ponder alternatives to the reality that they're used to; identify with the pain of others; the boundaries between their lives blur and break, and the individuals involved occupy the spaces in between what they were before the bomb went off and who they are in the aftermath.

And that, my friends, is transversal theater.

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Transversal Theatre Co.'s latest production is Reynolds' new play, Blue Shade, a Mafia version of Georg Büchner's unfinished classic Woyzeck. Reading Reynolds' play, you realize very quickly that Büchner's oppressed German soldier and his adulterous wife stuck in a cycle of poverty and despair easily transition into the bloody world of The Sopranos, daytime-television talk shows and pharmaceutical companies pushing anti-depressants.

"People get trapped in social whirlpools and they don't always know how to get out of what they're locked into," says Robert Cohen, Claire Trevor professor, Bren fellow, chairman of UCI's Department of Drama and Blue Shade's director.

Reynolds agrees: "I think this is emblematic of our whole country." The playwright's past work has tackled an array of subjects—threesomes, the Holocaust, suicide, the death of children—and while Blue Shade is one of his more politically informed pieces, with everything going on in the Middle East, Iraq is never mentioned. It would have been easy to transition Woyzeck's mentally ill soldier into an Operation Enduring Freedom vet, but Reynolds intentionally went in another direction.

"When you write, you always impose your world-view on what you produce," he says. "We bring up issues like ethnophobia and the fragility of human life, [and] the play is inspired by recent politics, but bringing up those issues by taking on the war in Iraq, people would have a knee-jerk reaction. [They'd] approach the play with a closed mind. It makes more sense to me to penetrate an audience's consciousness more subtly."

The play didn't start off as a reworking of Woyzeck, but Reynolds noticed the parallels because he had taught it in his first year at UCI. "It's always been there for me, but not in any explicit way. I flipped to different moments [during the writing of Blue Shade], but didn't re-read it," he says. "Woyzeck haunts the play, but I think they're also very different."

"Even Woyzeck is a very different play from Woyzeck,"interjects Cohen. "There are four different versions, and it's not entirely clear how Büchner intended the scenes to be put together because he died before it was finished. Every production has to adjust the scenes because it's not finalized even in its original version."

So why make it about the mob? "Criminal society creates extended families that bond as intensely as nuclear families," says Reynolds. "I chose to write about the Mafia because it represents everything that is detrimental about the capitalist machine. It's patriarchal and ethnophobic and has all the disconnection of capitalism, but without the sophistication of Big Business."

Cohen doesn't have the same connection, noting, "I was a suburban kid, but even my wife—one of the gentlest people I've ever known—loves The Sopranos." Cohen has directed more than 70 productions, both on and off campus, and is a world-famous lecturer and instructor; he's the author of numerous theater books and is also a playwright. One wonders if he and Reynolds, two men with strong visions of the same project, ever butt heads?

Reynolds turns to look at Cohen, sitting next to him, and smiles. "Robert completely gets what I'm trying to do."

Cohen agrees: "We puzzle over things together, but Bryan has written some of his books with several other authors, so he understands collaboration. He obviously knows what he's doing, and if one of the actors asks me about something I'm not sure about, I just say, 'Ask Bryan.' I have tremendous trust that he knows the character's intentions."

In rehearsals, Cohen watches his actors very carefully, asks questions when motivation is muddy, and isn't afraid to say he doesn't like the direction things are going and push for something different. It's an intuitive process that would seem to contradict Reynolds' intellectual transversal philosophies. "I can't say I fully understand them," Cohen says with a laugh. "It works for Bryan, but I'm too old and not inclined to try and learn them."

In Reynolds' view, people act transversally when they are "tolerant of the different, open to the thoughts and feelings of others." When people see a play about the lives of people of whom they have little understanding, as they hopefully start to empathize, they move outside of the emotional, conceptual and physical territorial walls that they have set up for themselves.

Tough going, but Reynolds wouldn't have it any other way.

"To become [full human beings]," he says, "we have to make ourselves vulnerable."


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