George Saunders's Pastoralia
nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
September 23, 2005
When a piece of theatre says “adapted from a story by George Saunders,” my advice to theatergoers is simple: Go.
Audiences can count on George Saunders’s stories to tell America about itself in a bizarre and interesting way and to delve into a universal aspect of human existence. With a company like P.S. 122, notoriously the home of talented designers and actors, and with the very competent director Yehuda Duenyas, who also adapted the story for the stage, Saunders’s work is in very good hands.
Pastoralia is about a man and a woman who play prehistoric cave dwellers in an historically themed park (you know the kind, where actors “live” the lifestyle of people in the past in supposedly authentic settings). The man and woman live in a perfect “zoo” replica of a cave (designed by Michael Casselli) with fake looking stones and brown painted walls made of that ubiquitous “zoo environment” material. They eat, try to start fires, fight, fake hunt, grunt, and do cave paintings. Their environment is complete with a viewing window through which tourists can peek and observe their behavior. The tourists then have to fill out forms evaluating the educational value of their experience.
The cave dwellers, Ed and Janet, played by Ryan Bronz and Amy McCormick, are dressed in fur costumes (designed by Kirstin Tobiasson). They also each wear a matted hair wig with a protruding “caveman” forehead and bushy eyebrows. Since dentists were not widely available in the Stone Age, they wear mouthpieces with rotting teeth.
Like all zoo creatures, Ed and Janet receive their meat from a scheduled feeding; specifically, it comes through a bin in the wall that opens much like a foldaway bed. After Ed pretends to hunt and kill an invisible animal in the air with a stick, they then cook the meat over an open flame.
I hope I’m not giving too much away, but one of the many interesting and funny parts of the play is watching how the artifice of their environment mixes with the aspects that pretend to be realistic. It’s funny to see Ed open up a fake stone and reveal that it’s a storage space for some Ritz crackers.
It’s funny to see the cave dwellers peek at the viewing window to make sure nobody’s looking before they push the button on the wall which starts the fire and then dance joyfully, even though nobody’s watching, as they pretend they started the fire by rubbing sticks together.
For the first few scenes of the play, in which Ed and Janet establish their cave person routines for the audience, neither actor says anything. In between each scene, the lights (designed by Ben Kato) fade up from morning to night to show the passage of time, or they blink off. The first time a character says anything in English, the modernity of the line gets a nice laugh.
Indeed, one of the best things about this play is how, in Duenyas’s adaptation, so much happens on stage through movement, as the play establishes the environment in which the characters live and as the company tells the story.
The play’s conflict comes from questions of loyalty and following rules. One of the cave dwellers has a drug addict son (played by Jesse Hawley) and one has a sick child. Also, the park gets very little attendance (only two guests in three months) and they are threatening to make employee cuts.
The two leads are superb in their parts as the cave dwellers. Bronz is perfect as Ed, who has a reputation for staying in character even when he takes out the trash. He is sensitive—so excruciatingly sensitive. He wants to do right by his partner and keep his job, two wishes that are becoming increasingly at odds with one another. McCormick is also perfect and heartbreaking as Janet, whose tarnished reputation has made her a target for the park owners’ possible cutbacks. She is cynically funny and dysfunctionally sad.
James Stanley plays a bureaucrat who is looking for evidence to fire someone and does a fantastic job seeming both insincere about caring for his employees and also really sincere about pressuring the two to follow the rules. Richard Ferrone and Alissa Ford, as the couple who run the employees-only snack shop, blend satire and reality to tell their story. Dmitri Friedenberg, the youngest cast member, is great in his two roles, as the shop owners' son and also as a tourist brat. Peter Lettre is very funny as his father, who really wants every experience to be educational, and who tries hard not to lose his temper when cave people become ornery.
Overall, George Saunders's Pastoralia is a treat to watch. I really felt an emotional connection with the characters’ conflicts. As bizarre a set-up as Saunders gives the audience, this play, with its story that is so human, so funny, and so sad, is a perfect example of how a false world can contain reality—and of how good storytelling works.