Illinois’ “O Beautiful”: More than a few missed notes

It is rare that I write a review that merely scathes. That mode is not really my point for this venue. I am more interested in unraveling the different things drama is capable of, what vision a particular production has, and whether they make good on that vision. With that said, I have never been more uncomfortable and upset at the unproductivity of a theatrical event as I was this last weekend. I have written previously on Krannert’s seeming new mission to take a social justice approach to its theatre—namely, taking account of its primary audience: UIUC students. Presentism has been one of the ways. They have featured productions in the last two years having to do with the current political milieu and election cycle, as well as the intersection of race and class in gentrification, a particularly exigent topic in the Midwest. However, O Beautiful, in attempting to cash in on the presentism of education censorship (especially concerning Arizona’s recent legislation) and playwright brand name recognition forgot the most important ingredient to making a production a hit: a playtext worthwhile.

O Beautiful is a bad play. I am saying this not according to my own aesthetic values, but rather that the play fails according to its own rules. It is set up as a satire, taking all the core values of American extremism and suggesting they will be lampooned with the use of a Bill O’Reilly/Glen Beck parody tv show insterstial to a small-town suicide. Public education reform, race, feminism, cyber bullying, gun violence, abortion and rape are all added to the mix as related symptoms. With so many issues at hand the play doesn’t do any individual one justice nor does it convince us of their codependence. The mother of the boy driven to suicide by cyber bullying knowingly erases the text messages, the only evidence of the guilty parties to her son’s death who happen to be the children of her friends. The one witness, a young girl, isn’t qualified to speak because how dare she be raped by one of the bullies and abort the pregnancy. And Jesus—an actual character in the play of the beatnick prophet variety out of a bad pop song—exonerates them all. The play meets with pat amelioration hate, violence, xenophobic exceptionalism and racism. No one is punished nor requited. In the end, the production suggests none of these things, not even a human life, are stakes high enough to care or hold someone responsible.

Part of the issue seems to be a misunderstanding of how satire works on the part of the playwright, Theresa Rebeck, a long-time stock writer for the Law & Order franchise as well as NBC’s lukewarm attempt to cash-in on the television musical fad, Smash. In satire there is a satirical target, an institution or idea that is taken to task for the faulty assumptions on which it is based or clings to for cultural authority. Through the shaming ridicule of its foibles and abuses in literature, we as an audience come to a two-part experience: (1) that we are made aware of the false logic and authority underpinning that institution, and (2) are partly implicated in giving that institution power over our social norms and cultural values. It is a powerful genre because of the complex result of its virulent criticism, which in other formulas just falls flat in one-dimensionality. In her play, Rebeck puts on display all of the varieties of militant extremism in our culture without addressing or even diagnosing the false logic or nefarious assumptions on which they collectively rely.

If there is a critique embedded here, it would seem to be one about our collective passive consumption practices. Linking and dividing the play formally and morally is the hyper-conservative parody TV program. The host intones a revival rhetoric of fear-mongering and firearm propaganda that holds up the constitutional “founding fathers” as America’s saviors. (This idea is not a new one, and dealt much for deftly and smartly in the recent gaming hit, Bioshock Infinite.) The adult characters in the play comment on how awful the program is with a smirk and a laugh, but like sheep passively watch while cooking dinner or as a distraction from the boy’s suicide. Several Continental Congressman are trouped onto the program; We are never sure if these are supposed to be allegorical embodiments invading present day like Jesus, or actors (played by actors) hired for the program. In the darkness of the Studio black-box theatre, we as an audience don’t turn away from the extremism on display, nor do the parents within the action of the play. We passively watch on, waiting for it to come to something meaningful while the extremism over time slowly becomes normalized, and we, morally anesthetized.

Upon arriving to a new state built on zeppelins, your character in “Biosock Infinite (2013)” is baptized in a cult that literalizes the “founding fathers” and venerates pre-Civil War militant federalism.

The play never meditates long enough on this issue for it to be clearly made the satiric target and its fault-lines revealed. Rather, much exposition is spent in teenagers bemoaning the confusion of their personal bildungsromans and their parents fixing marital problems by sharing milkshakes. Without any artifice or tact, the play falls flat of any coherent meaning, leaning on its presentism to create some semblance of traction. This is what is most nefarious to me. By giving all of the “air time” so to speak to the extremisms with which we contend, the assumption becomes that these small radical voices have equal weight, that these opinions based on blind belief and fear rather than critical reasoning are valid and reasonable positions. They get no counterweight, no political, critical, analytical, or moral opposition. These extremisms of suburban wasp culture are the only voices we hear in the play, without even the slightest hint otherwise to cast a shade over their privileged assumptions. Darkest about this play is not that it gives air to conservative extremisms in this country, but rather that it posits that we are not capable of and entirely without social debate.