Greek Unorthodox

Although the ancient Egyptians probably had some form of theater as early as 4000 B.C., most of our information about drama's origins comes from the Greeks. I once knew an uproarious stage manager who, disillusioned by countless tours with theatrical turkeys, insisted that an important part of theater history had been lost. We all know of the masks of comedy and tragedy, she theorized, but there was another, long-forgotten mask that represented a third age-old dramatic experience: agony. Set in modern Greece, Botho Strauss's The Tourist Guide introduces us to a man who is making a pilgrimage to the homeland of Plato and Aristotle in the hope of adding some philosophical impetus to his woeful life. Although I couldn't tell from Strauss's pseudo-absurdist exercise if the man succeeds, I did discover enough evidence among the ruins of this stupefyingly pretentious American premiere (at downtown Miami's 3rd Street Black Box) to support my friend's contention.

The two-act play opens at Mount Olympus, where French and history teacher Martin (Andrew Noble) listens to his pretty guide Kristine's (Jennifer Smith) recitation of facts about Greece's legendary arena, which she supplements with furtive glances at her clipboard. Although Martin speaks with a German accent and Kristine seems as American as apple pie, we are left to guess their nationalities and backgrounds; this ambiguity turns out to be an ominous sign of problems to come. Burned out and facing a midlife crisis, Martin has taken a six-month leave from teaching his adolescent students because, as he confides later, he is tired of "trying to talk them out of their desperation. But there is no life without despair." Kristine, who is substituting on the tours for her ailing boyfriend, soon tumbles into Martin's bed, showing him a few things not found in the Fodor's guide. Before long she has taken over the teacher's holiday bungalow, turning it into a sickroom for her boyfriend Vassili (Jason "Sky" Allen), who is drinking himself to death because, as she tells the furious Martin, "the idea that the world spins on its axis drives him mad."

In nearly two dozen emotionally charged but contextually barren scenes, the young guide and the middle-aged teacher compete in an Olympiad of mind games. In one of these, Kristine prefaces making love with Martin by asking him for money to pay Vassili's fare home to Germany. In another she holds a vigil for days (or hours, or weeks -- in Strauss's timeless world, who can tell?) outside Martin's room before running off to be with Vassili. Eventually, after her young lover's death, Kristine accompanies Martin to a remote cabin, where the two grapple with their relationship while some strong, unnamed force keeps them trapped within the house. From beginning to end, Strauss's short scenes show the couple only in the midst of stormy outbursts, completely dismissing underlying motivations and consequences.

Given lines such as "It's the helplessness in him I have to help" -- Kristine's defense of her codependent nature -- it is tempting to blame Anthony Vivis and Tinch Minter's translation from the original German for the gibberish that passes for dialogue. But the only way the pair could have botched their job badly enough to make the play this incomprehensible is if they had written each sentence of the script on a separate piece of paper and thrown them all into the air, then randomly assembled them.

Strauss, born in 1944, also writes poetry and fiction; this dramatic effort was first presented in its original German as Die FremdenfYhrerin in Berlin in 1985, before undergoing a 1987 transformation into its present English-language form for a London production. While mimicking many hallmarks of the absurdist genre, The Tourist Guide brings a whole new connotation to theater of the absurd.

When critic Martin Esslin coined that term in his 1962 book of the same title, he strove to categorize the works of several post-World War II playwrights with an expression that referred to the nonsensical dialogue and often aimless action found in their works. Like Samuel Beckett, Strauss writes minimal dialogue for many of his characters, and some have no lines at all: Vassili never speaks, and the role of his sister is so slight that it doesn't even warrant credit in the program. But his play's verbal bouts of elevated passions are less effective than Beckett's mundane musings. His dialogue, like that of Harold Pinter, also eludes easy analysis -- "The light is a steady stream of letters," for example. His action, told in too many quick-cut scenes, comes across as considerably less compelling than Pinter's. Finally, following Eugene Ionesco's lead, his work seems to have a political subtext, yet allegorical allusions to Kristine's instinctive female nature and Martin's rational male nature are not nearly as novel or well-grounded as Ionesco's perplexing real-life parallels. As an absurdist, Strauss is like Beckett, Pinter, and Ionesco, only without that trio's humanity, humor, or talent.

An unimaginative cast magnifies the play's shortcomings. Noble ignores opportunities to invest Martin with any degree of shading or personality. Are his stilted anecdotes about Proust a sign of his professorial personality or his attempt to play Svengali to young Kristine? Likewise, Smith never intimates if Kristine's intentions are more mercenary than sincere, and she often relies on the volume of her voice to express feeling. Left only to cough and pass out, Allen turns in the production's best performance.

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