“Clive” at The New Group at the Acorn Theatre (Closed March 9, 2013)

February 22, 2013 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Jonathan Marc Sherman
Directed by Ethan Hawke
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“So high you can’t get over it /So low you can’t get under it /So wide you can’t get ’round it /You gotta’ go in at the door.” – Traditional American Gospel Song

In The New Group’s spellbinding production “Clive” at the Acorn Theatre, Clive the protagonist does all he can to avoid redemption (going in at the door), including forfeiting his soul. Unlike Faust, Clive sidesteps selling his soul to the Devil; instead, he destroys whatever he perceives his soul to be. More like Saint Sebastian, Clive is a martyr, in Clive’s case a martyr for the cause of antinominianism. Clive is indeed exempt from the obligations of moral law. Clive’s soul is repeatedly shot through with the arrows of unbridled yearning until he is bereft of hope, bereft of the self who was/is Clive. Or perhaps Clive is whatever the Devil might be, selling his self to himself.

That soul – that self – is brilliantly portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio as the on-stage character of Doc who serves as Clive’s doppelganger. Ethan Hawke’s Clive magically (it seems) skillfully collides Ego, Id, and Superego in the particle accelerator of the collective mind of the audience to create a truth-or-dare universe where “logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead” (Grace Slick with special thanks to William Butler Yeats). Through Doc’s cajoling, the audience experiences Clive’s desperate search for meaning and connection.

In Jonathan Marc Sherman’s engaging and provocative re-telling of Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal,” Sherman tumbles together images from a variety of musical, artistic, and literary sources to awaken Brecht’s celebration of the antihero (or is it Everyman?) and give it post-modern relevance. Armed with a treasure trove of tropes, the playwright chronicles Clive’s prodigal quest for pleasure. This playful protagonist broods like Hamlet and one of his women (like Ophelia) drowns herself. He snorts one of many colorful powders (a marvelous extended metaphor for the numbness of spirit, the ennui in the midst of the twenty-first century quest for happiness) and fathers an unwanted child.

Under Ethan Hawke’s decisive direction, the profoundly talented cast provides the virtual universe Clive transverses on his melancholic and Id-driven journey. Brooks Ashmanskas, Stephanie Janssen, Mahira Kakkar, Zoe Kazan, Aaron Krohn, Dana Lyn, and the playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman baptize the audience with wonder, strum and moan the music of madness (from the doors of the set!) and confuse our values-driven culture to the point of no return. This universe – where right and wrong, good and evil become meaningless constructs – is brought to life by Derek McLane’s expansive set that transcends even Dante’s nine circles of Hell and Jeff Croiter’s lighting that creates “Starry Night” without oil on canvas. Catherine Zuber’s costumes, Shane Rettig’s sound design and the Music and Sound Sculptures by GAINES with live violin performance by Dana Lyn complete the creative magic of this important new work.

Quixote-like, like Clive, we dash at windmills, stand silent before our distorted reflections. We dance for others with worn out shoes hoping to be terribly late for our date (down by the river, under the bridge, in the asylum, in the walk-up corridors of our minds) with that Grand Inquisitor just as others more capable (perhaps) before us attempted to do. But like Clive, Adam, Vincent, even (near the end of his journey) the Redeemer himself (Take this Cup!) we rendezvous with destiny on the highway, in the streets and find ourselves face to face with all we attempted to escape or deny. Like Van Gogh, like Clive, we look out from our supposed madness into the starry, starry night (Van Gogh ala Don McLean). “And we’re lost out here in the stars/ Little stars big stars blowing through the night And we’re lost out here in the stars Little stars big stars blowing through the night And we’re lost out here in the stars” (Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson). And the game of truth-or-dare reboots.