Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Godard’s “La Chinoise,” that (perhaps) tongue-in-cheek Maoist manifesto about posturing Parisian university students in someone else’s bourgeois apartment, endlessly debating how to overturn the repressive social order. There’s something inherently and irresistibly French about philosophical political disputes, and young French playwright Frédéric Sonntag readily admits that his “George Kaplan” –– whose first act comically echoes Godard’s wrangling revolutionaries –– may not easily translate to all other cultures.
Still, his 2012 play has already been translated into 15 languages, most recently a new American version by Sam Buggeln, artistic director of the Cherry Arts, where “George Kaplan” is currently intriguing audiences in its U.S. premiere. Keeping the full text, with its wordy, nuanced dialogue, Buggeln not only retains the density of the original but its pacing – fluid despite the five characters’ fragmented speech and constant interrupting each other.
But back to the story, or rather the underlying trope. As it happens, it wasn’t Godard but Hitchcock who provided Sonntag with the teasing central concept: a fake identity, an empty shell that can be filled multiple ways. That’s George Kaplan, the alleged spy whom Cary Grant is mistaken for in “North by Northwest.” In Sonntag’s satirical serio-comic edgy thriller, five young artist-activists meet in a remote country home to plan the next phase of the aesthetic project they intend to spread worldwide. Each member of the collective is known as George Kaplan, which confers a unifying anonymity and dedication – not to mention continuing amusement for the audience.
The ultimate goal of these not-quite-revolutionary artists is rather opaque (even to some of them), but they dream big, even as they bog down in minute procedural observances and the whims of their contrary personalities. (Think the Meeting from Hell, guaranteed comic gold, as seen last year in Playwrights Horizons’ “Miles for Mary”). At one point they consider voting on whether they’re having an actual meeting or just a discussion. Coffee is made, and made again.
Identified in the script simply as A through E, the five characters each have a different notion of their mission. Joshua Sedelmeyer keeps trying to take charge, though derailed by the others, including his obsessive partner, Erica Steinhagen. Dean Robinson hangs back yet arrogantly seems to hold the true purpose of their plan, while Elizabeth Moser and Jacob Garrett White strike different emotional chords.
The aim, inspired by G.K., is to create and disseminate a myth, a counterfiction, a hoax, and possibly a weapon –– George Kaplans everywhere as a political act, a haunting. Their theorizing is interrupted by a SWAT team … but the storyline’s not at stake here, rather the creative chaos of a collective.
In scene two, the creative stakes are higher: a team of five scriptwriters toss out ideas for the next brutal blockbuster. (This isn’t the same group, but resonating images and moments keep popping up allusively.) Everyone’s focused and competitive and on the clock to produce – not to mention that their entire brainstorming session is being taped for the shadowy investors who hired them. Their proposed scenarios are offensively violent, just as in Hollywood itself, so when the misfit among them – White’s sad-clownish character, unable to think about anything but his wife leaving him – goes postal, it’s art imitating life imitating art, etc.
Scene two ends in a powerfully simulated act of domestic terrorism (or is it a fantasy?) that Buggeln, as director, sees as reflecting “an open wound in our own culture.”
The third scene is set in a corporate boardroom. Within the play, the characters’ attire, by Liz Woods – tinged ever so subtly with radical red – has moved from casual to professional to severe black suits. These agents are now arguing about actions and ideas of global consequence: this is Deep State activity, manipulating and ruthless.
Throughout the three scenes, clips from “North by Northwest” have appeared on a high letterbox-screen on the rear wall, and now a hooded bound captive is also seen, as well as, in a fair grassy field, a husky white Cochin chicken. Yes, a chicken, whose intermittent appearance is part of the mystery, a wonderfully absurdist touch. Is the chicken the real George Kaplan? Or has it swallowed secret codes? Or is it, as it struck me, the most alert and compassionate intelligence staring back at us?
While our heads are buzzing with the implications of connection between the three levels of collaborative group agency we’ve witnessed (just how dangerous is art?), Sonntag’s themes are clear. He’s exploring the boundaries of identity and naming, of fiction and reality, of speculative invention and action with consequences. At one point a character implies that stories exist not to give us answers but to confuse us.
George Kaplan,a riddling, unpredictable play, may do just that. But with five compelling actors, a few folding tables, a chicken, and a gurgling coffeepot – this humorous, sly, and occasionally disturbing work is satisfyingly provocative.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.