Hip Shot: ‘Case 22′

Case 22

The Shop at Fort Fringe — 607 New York Avenue NW

Remaining Performance:

Thursday, July 22 at 9:15

They say: "Abused kids are trapped between the courts and home. Eight actors think they're exploring the subject, but this experimental theatre project is about to go terribly wrong. Case 22 is a dark farce that asks questions only you can answer."

Chris's take: Some years ago (circa 300 B.C.), a Roman actor named Genesius was performing before emperor Diocletian in the role of a Christian. During the performance, Genesius beheld angels, baptized himself, and became the thing he had been performing. Diocletian saw to the prompt execution of Genesius, who went on to become the patron saint of actors. The great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega dramatizes the story in the superb baroque drama Acting is Believing, and the less-great French playwright Rotrou does the same in a worthy but less memorable neoclassical play.

Several centuries later Jean Genet picks up the theme of characters who are transformed into the thing they perform, most notably in The Balcony. In turn, Jean-Paul Sartre writes a book on Genet entitled Saint Genet, a pun on "Saint Genest" (French for "Saint Genesius").

The premise of Case 22 is that a group of actors are improvising and rehearsing the story of an abused child, and her lack of good legal options. A replacement actor- -called on to fill in after the cast took their roles a bit too seriously and mishandled the previous child actor — has her Genesius moment standing as an abuse victim before a judge. Deprived of all good recourses within the child protection system, a friend advises her to slit her writst — not enough to die, just enough to make it into the mental health system where she will be safe.  She slices herself and slumps to the ground, while the other actors marvel at her Method acting and commitment to the role.  Is the actress putting on an act, or killing herself on-stage?

The answer, of course, is that we the audience are watching an actress play an actress pretending to have committed herself so deeply to her character that she is actually killing herself. This is community theater, and the line between reality and fiction is as not delicately difficult to make out as it is in Lope or Genet.

The intellectually surprising moment of this performance came–by accident, I think–after the curtain call. The actress Diane El-Shafey (the "social worker") called the other actors back, announced that it is another cast member's birthday, and asked everyone to sing "Happy Birthday" to her. Here, suddenly, was the ambiguity the play had lacked. Was this the reality of an impromptu birthday celebration, or the fiction of one, cleverly juxtaposing the morbid final scene? I'm going to guess the former, but Brecht would love the latter.

So, note to director: Keep the post-show "Happy Birthday."

See it if: You take a socially conscious interest in the child welfare system.

Skip it if: You like your metatheater a bit more transcendent.

  • BR

    You spent maybe 3 or 4 sentences in this whole review actually reviewing the play. In addition you ruined the ending and completely refused to acknowledge any positives that the performance might have contained, your only judgement was that it was not exactly likes these other plays drawn from your theatre history knowledge.The intent was not that you would think the people on stage had become these characters, but that the real people you know, the person you passed by on the street, or the one sitting next to you in the audience may already be one of the characters just like the "actors" in the play are. So I begin to wonder did you even watch?

  • Chris Swanson

    This is in response to Steve Beall's comment:

    I think there's something to your remark that I'm veering toward a definition of sophistry. Very interesting. But I'll stand by my earlier comment, and here's why:

    The trouble with theater and other aesthetic realms generally is that the only way to establish answers is through argumentation. I can claim that 'A Streetcar Named Desire' is the greatest American play, and you could claim that in fact it is the worst play ever by an American playwright. We can't both be right, right? But either one of us could construct an argument in defense of the claim, and if the evidence is compelling, then one of us (or possibly both of us!) has (or have) made something "true."

    If that's sophistry, then, indeed, aesthetic criticism is sophistry. I can live with that. It is an intellectual game.

  • BR

    The play wasn't written for people who are concerned about the subject, it was written because not enough people are concerned about the subject. Were you supposed to jump out of your seat because you were convinced she was killing herself, or were you supposed to leave the theater wondering what, if anything, can be done?

  • Steve Beall

    Got no bone pick with the review or with the response from John, but the definition of criticism offered here gave me pause.

    Is that really the definition of criticism?

    "The art of making something true ..."

    Not quite a definition of sophistry, but it's closer to that than to a definition of criticism, I'm thinking.

  • Chris Swanson

    Criticism is the art of making something true through the strength of one's argument. You know mine. What's yours?

  • John

    "The answer, of course, is that we the audience are watching an actress play an actress pretending to have committed herself so deeply to her character that she is actually killing herself."

    Dude, you didn't get it.