“Vicuña” or not “Vicuña,” That is the Question

(L to R) Evelyn Holley, Srin Chakravorty, Steve Auger, Arthur Barlas, and Jaime Hernandez in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of Vicuña. Photo by Joel Benjamin.

Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company 
By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by David J. Miller

September 14th – October 6th, 2018
Plaza Black Box Theater
Boston Center for the Arts
539 Tremont St
Boston, MA
Zeitgeist on Facebook

Review by Diana Lu

(Boston, MA) In Vicuña, the year is 2016, and Amir, a young Iranian-American tailor’s apprentice, gets thrown into the world of national politics when Kurt Seaman, the loose cannon business tycoon-turned underdog presidential candidate, drops in to order a special suit (made of fine vicuña wool) for his third debate against an unnamed female opponent. Caught between virtue and duty, flirting with Seamen’s daughter Ivanka—er, I mean Srilanka—and disaster, Amir must decide whether to make the suit and betray everything he believes in, or refuse and let his family and closest friends suffer the consequences of denying this powerful and dangerous man.

I can’t decide whether Vicuña is an atrocious satire or an ingenious one. At face value, it plays out like one of the high school theater shows of SNL sketches. Not even two years since the election, and the script already feels hopelessly passé. Many plot points were so painfully on-the-nose that watching it felt like being punched in the face. The story lacked action: it was rife with starts and stops and really, none of the characters took any meaningful actions until it was far too late. The characters lacked interaction: the bulk of the play was composed of long monologues, charismatic yet sinister ramblings from Seaman, righteously indignant diatribes from Amir, Srilanka, and Kitty Finch-Gibbon, the Republican Senator and Party Chairman, while the others sat there looking on. It often felt like the only thing separating this play from an actual screaming tirade toward the sitting president was a fourth wall with the structural integrity of a spider’s web.

Amir and Anselm’s characters seem shallow and artificial, like they are token tropes used to make points. Amir is the son of Anselm’s closest friend, but there lacked the resonant familial bond I’d expect from such a relationship. Amir’s was especially problematic. He was from a stereotypical background, but the character was coded as a white elite, and white worshipping in his love interests, as if to make him “palatable”. The bouts of sexual tension between Amir and Srilanka seemed to come out of nowhere and went the way it came, and frankly, it would have been more true to life had that sexual tension been reserved for interactions between father and daughter.

It also seemed grossly out of touch to portray Ivanka Trump and Republican congresswoman as the voices of temperance and reason, and for me, there was hefty cognitive dissonance in trying to accept these two as sympathetic or just. I realize that there needs to some character to serve as counterweight to Seamen, but why these two? Are these two rich, privileged women supposed to represent the women of America? It just reads as incredibly gauche, given that white women en masse sold out the country in 2016, given that they are and have always been the primary beneficiaries of the white patriarchy epitomized by Trump—er, I mean Seaman.

And putting it on now, so much has happened since the play was written, even in the last 6 months alone, that every imagined horror of a Seaman presidency, even the dystopian epilogue scene, came across as naive, maudlin and pedantic.

Then again, perhaps that’s what playwright Jon Robin Baitz was going for, and the real joke is on us, the audience. Maybe the writer and director knew what they were doing. I thought the staging of this production was particularly interesting. The stage was in the middle of the room, and the seating was on both sides, so as you watched they play, you also looked directly into the faces of the other section of the audience. This created an unsettling double consciousness, a constant reminder that you were both subject and voyeur.

So maybe, just maybe in offering its liberal audience this theatrical catharsis, basically the artistic equivalent of Tina Fey’s “sheetcaking”, Baitz is satirizing and indicting those of us in the audience, we moralizing East Coast liberals who benefit in various ways from structural racism, sexism, and imperialism, who have high-minded ideals but are complicit and apologists in our actions—or lack thereof. We are the Anselms, Amirs. We’re no better than the Srilankas and the Kittys. And all of us created the grotesque monstrosity that is Kurt Seamen. If that’s what Baitz was going for, then he is a genius, and this play is extremely effective.

This production itself was clean and polished. The actors all put on fine performances, especially the man who played Kurt Seaman. That said, were there really no middle eastern actors to portray Amir and Anselm? None at all in the Greater Boston Area? Middle eastern and north African actors are so often ignored that this would have been a rare opportunity to have someone with the right combination of background and skill bring depth and nuance to otherwise flat roles. Instead, I am just left with the sense that Boston Theater considers all brown people interchangeable. I won’t speak for the Muslim or MENA community, but this happens so frequently for Asians in the media, and given the lack of diversity in film and theater criticism, it would be remiss if I didn’t note it here.

A production like this shows that, just because a play is written recently, doesn’t mean it won’t be problematic and doesn’t mean it will be effective at exploring current social issues. If you’re a white liberal looking for catharsis from this week’s news cycle, this might be the play for you. For anyone who can’t so easily escape the realities of racism, oppression, uncertainty about your livelihoods, immigration status, or existence in this country, your time and money might be better spent elsewhere.

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