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'Blackbird:' Best New British Play

Touchy issues of pedophelia are powerfully aired as the victim confronts the criminal years later.

(c) (The Independent Observer of San Francisco Bay Area Theater)

May 10, 2007

By Carol Benet

The play Blackbird by the young Scottish playwright David Harrower's has raised eyebrows both here and abroad. Winner of the 2007 Olivier Award for the best new play, Blackbird deals with a very controversial subject, pedophilia, and presents it in an ambiguous light. It asks, "who is the real aggressor - child or adult?" Despite its great success in West End London, the critics in New York disliked the U.S. production that just opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The West Coast premiere plays at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.).

From an audience response session that A.C.T. holds periodically immediately after the performance, the consensus seems to be that the adult is in the responsible position - always! Maybe when translated for the American stage our Puritan heritage comes through and makes critical judgments and moral pronouncements like this on art. Some of the plays that I've seen in London or Germany have been way beyond what would have been acceptable in the States.

Without one's revealing too much of the plot, Blackbird is an encounter between a man, almost 60, and a young woman who turns up 15 years after their affair. She was 12 at the time. When going over the past, her anger is expected. What is uncomfortable is the residual tenderness, love and above all, need that continue.

The ninety minutes acting by Ulna (Jessi Campbell) as the accuser and the man (Steven Culp) is riveting. What a firebrand she is. She is very damaged and aggressive, he almost passive. Perhaps these characteristics are the result of all the therapy that they had after they were caught in this illicit affair---she having been taught to express all of her anger, and he in prison with the other pedophiles having undergone deprogramming and desexualization.

Since this is such a spare play, and a short one too, veiled signals of what is going on are as important as the action. The costumes by David F. Draper take on their own meaning. Her aggression is suggested by the combat boots and a sexless a short trench-coat. And then she turns seductive when underneath there is a dress that has an open bodice at first covered over by a fire red sweater. Overall she is very poorly put together as if there is no woman to instruct her in the sense of fashion. Her relationship with her mother is part of the story as well.

He, a man who has reinvented himself, is dressed conservatively and has short hair, with cellphone is attached to his belt. He is even prissy when she tosses a drink and wets his pressed shirt and tie. The encounter takes place in the company lunch room.

The lunchroom itself (by designer Robert Brill) in its starkness becomes part of the action; the leftover mess from the employee's food seems to grow and become disorderly just like their conversation. The lighting (Russell H. Champa) also reflects the meaning starting with a bright, almost unbearable clinical whiteness to a softening as the feelings become more exposed and warmer.

The action and dialogue, skillfully directed by Loretta Greco, are raw. The questions that the playwright poses result in ambiguous answers, if any. Harrower said that in his dramas he likes "to leave some mysteries intact, some questions left unanswered." He must be a Proustian because he also said that the play is about "memory." It is "what memories we hold on to that shape us."

Blackbird is about memories and the dredging up of them. Whenever we rely on memory, there is also margin for error. Do we believe either of them? Are we ready for the shock that comes near the very end of the play? Is America ready for a discussion of Platonic thought that questions reality?

Other literary works besides Proust's have dealt with the same questions. Nabokov's Lolita, Mamet's Oleanna, Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? are only a few. As for Mamet, the language that Harrower uses is very reminiscent of Mamet with the incomplete sentences, the wordiness signifying nothing, save perhaps combativeness.

Blackbird runs through May 27. ACT Geary Theater, S.F. (90 minutes without intermission). See it before any one runs it out of town on a stick. For info: (415) 749-2228 or go online at

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